5 Apr 2018

Children left suffering by Family Court changes - Little

10:38 am on 5 April 2018

Controversial changes to the Family Court aimed at getting lawyers out of family disputes do not seem to have worked and children were suffering, says Justice Minister Andrew Little.

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Justice Minister Andrew Little Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

Mr Little is setting up a panel and an expert advisory group to review the system introduced under the previous government.

The changes to the Family Court four years ago put the onus on parents - rather than the court - to resolve their differences.

Lawyers were removed from the process in all but urgent cases.

These are known as a 'without notice' or 'urgent' application and usually involve allegations of violence or abuse. They are heard by a judge who needs to see only one side of the case.

The number of these applications has more than doubled and now 70 percent of cases involving relationship breakdowns are being filed as urgent.

That meant cases regarded as non-urgent were pushed back in the queue and Mr Little said that was not fair on the children of warring parents.

"What we are seeing now is incredible delays in the Family Court and particularly where children are concerned, that's not fair. They can't sit around for 12-15 months waiting for their parents to sort out their issues, that's too long a period of time for a child," he said.

Law Society family law section chairperson Kirsty Swadling said when a judge made an order after an urgent hearing, the other parent was often allowed to see the child - under supervision - until the matter came back before the court.

She said delays with the court process could mean one parent being shut out of their child's life.

"It has a significant impact on a child, particularly if it's a young child. A child's sense of time is quite different to an adult's sense of time and four months in the life of a two-year-old is very significant and can impact on that child's development. And for the parent that's shut out of that child's life, it's very distressing," she said.

Ms Swadling said because 'without notice' applications were given priority, family court judges were often forced to delay other cases.

Chief district court judge Jan-Marie Doogue said some groups had unfairly blamed judges for those delays.

"We have tried many innovative ways of responding to this legislation. We've tried rostering changes, we've tried a new innovative electronic technique of ensuring that cases get to judges on an emergency basis up and down the country every day, but we can't fix the fundamental design flaw," she said.

Mr Little said the law needed to change so parents could bring in lawyers for non-urgent cases.

"The fundamental flaw in that set of reforms is that it assumed that separating couples were capable, without advice, of sorting out those issues at a time that is hugely emotional, sometimes traumatic for them, and very difficult for them. Actually they need assistance and advice to get through that," he said.

Details of the review will be announced this month and the appointed advisers are expected to report back early next year.

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