2 Aug 2018

Reforms aim to make Family Court less traumatic

6:08 pm on 2 August 2018

A review of the controversial 2014 reforms to the Family Court is under way, with the aim of providing more support and advice for warring couples.

Justice Minister Andrew Little with Rosslyn Noonan.

Justice Minister Andrew Little with panel expert Rosslyn Noonan. Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

The changes were supposed to resolve disputes without families having to go to court.

But it had the opposite effect, prompting a sharp increase in urgent applications as parents worked around the system to get access to lawyers and have their case dealt with by a judge.

The government said the three-person panel will spend the next couple of months going round the country talking to lawyers, litigants, judges, children and advocacy groups about the effects of the 2014 reforms.

By May next year, they will come up with a package of changes which the Justice Minister Andrew Little hopes will restore confidence in the family court system.

The panel's chair, Rosslyn Noonan, conceded the timeframe was tight, but said the problems with the current system were well known.

"The answer isn't simply to go back to what was happening before; the reforms came about because there were issues.

"This is a court where we need to have a high degree of confidence in it because this deals with family's at their most fraught," she said.

The panel will be assisted by a expert reference group, and will include those with experience in law, child psychology, mediation, kaupapa Māori research and family violence.

Mr Little said he would announce the group's members shortly.

The Law Society's chair of family law section, Kirsty Swadling, said that would be crucial to the effectiveness of the review.

"Really we need to see how the panel interpret their role and how the expert reference group works with the panel in terms of what we're actually going to be able to see achieved by this review," she said.

Ms Swadling said the panel needed to look at how family disputes proceeded through the court.

"At the moment we're restricted to certain tracks that can be used and I think that there needs to be some more flexibility.

"There needs to be more use of the court time in a way that's productive.

"So currently the system provides for a number of compulsory events and if we could do away with those ones and actually get things moving faster, that would be good," she said.

Otago University law professor Mark Henaghan, who is researching the impact of the 2014 reforms, said dealing with families was not a one-size-fits-all approach.

"The ideal is to try and get family's working together but where there's extreme violence and threats and fear, trying to get them to work together is not, perhaps, the right philosophy," Professor Henaghan said.

"We need to get that right because forcing people into processes and not listening to them because we think it's better that they try to get on, may not work for people and it puts people in dangerous situations," he said.

He said the 2014 reforms were designed to cut costs, but came at the expense of a team approach to resolving family disputes.

"They used to be all under the same umbrella at the family court but we've privitised them and put them out so there's a lot more fracturalisation."

"It's really important to have that team approach so everyone's on the same page trying to really [help] this family and the different needs they have as they work through this very traumatic and probably the most difficult part of their life, apart from someone close to them dying," he said.

"It's a massive exercise and a massive emotional exercise for people and there's a lot of safety issues which we've got to get right," he said.

Ms Swadling said adequate funding was crucial to the reform's success.

"You can put any reforms in place but if you don't have the funding to actually sustain those, then they're doomed to failure," she said.

Mr Little said he wanted a family court system where even if people were disappointed with the result, they would look back and believe they were treated fairly and were not traumatised by the experience.