2 Apr 2019

Family Court's lawyer spend rises, despite 'cost-cutting' reforms

1:53 pm on 2 April 2019

Spending on lawyers in the Family Court has rocketed, despite reforms five years ago aimed at slashing the court's running costs.

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Photo: RNZ

The previous government made the changes with the promise they would put children at the heart of the court's work and save money.

Those changes were aimed at encouraging parents to resolve access and care disputes without having to go to court with a lawyer.

Announcing the changes in 2012 the justice minister at the time, Judith Collins, promised to reduce the stress on families by avoiding - where possible - the delays, conflict and expense of court proceedings.

She also wanted to curb the costs of running the court, which she said had climbed from $84 million in 2004 to $142m in 2010, a 70 percent increase.

Graphic: Costs of running Family Court

Graphic: RNZ

The Ministry of Justice said it could not give a figure for the total cost of running the court now.

But its figures show that after the reforms were introduced in March 2014 the money spent on non-departmental costs - mainly lawyers - rose from $41,550 million to $58,440m last year.

And that jumps to a record $70,679m if the costs of domestic violence programmes are included.

Law Society family law section chair Kirsty Swadling said clearly the reforms had not made the system any cheaper.

"It clearly hasn't done that and all the research seems to indicate that not only has it not reduced costs, but it's increased delays and it's increased frustrations for parents who are involved in this," she said.

Graphic: Legal aid costs for Family Court

Graphic: RNZ

The figures show the amount spent on family legal aid has risen from $41,782m in 2014 to $45,152m last year, an 8 percent increase.

And the cost of Lawyer for the Child have increased from $20,986m to $27,463m.

Those lawyers are there to represent the best interests and views of children.

"Sometimes where there are no lawyers involved and Lawyer for the Child is involved, that lawyer does get into a role of trying to help move things forward," she said.

But the figures do not include the costs of running the Family Dispute Resolution Programme, a mediation service introduced as part of the changes.

Zayne Joumaa runs groups which help families struggling through the Family Court.

He said the changes have left the Family Court in crisis and the system was a shambles.

"South Auckland court is the worst affected by this. People they're waiting for four years, five years for a court hearing and some people are waiting for back-up hearings, they cannot get a back-up hearing and people are frustrated and it's affecting the court registry, the communication," he said.

Nelson lawyer Michelle Duggan said there were other consequential costs that were not reflected in the ministry's figures, including the huge increase in the number of urgent applications.

"What is the consequence for all of the parents who have had to wait longer to have the court resolve their parenting disputes, because of the increase in the applications.

"And of course what about the children who have had to wait longer. And what about the increased workload, that court staff have had to manage," she said.

RNZ wanted to compare the court's running costs now with 2010, when Judith Collins said it was $142m.

When the ministry declined to provide the information, the case was taken to the Ombudsman.

The ministry told the Ombudsman it was unable to give a figure and could not explain how Ms Collins came up with $140m, saying it cannot find the information given to her at the time.

It said the figures prepared for Ms Collins were part of a substantial in-depth review and to re-do the project would be time consuming and expensive.

The ministry also earlier told RNZ it was evaluating the reforms, but it now said that was not the case.

Ms Duggan said she was surprised those figures were no longer accessible, particularly as the driver or motivation was to save costs.

"So wouldn't you want to have figures to prove that you have saved money?" she asked.

A review into the Family Court is due to be presented to the Minister of Justice Andrew Little next month.

Ms Swadling said there were some big lessons to be learnt.

"Just taking lawyers out of the process, doesn't have the effect of making it cost less. It emphasises that there are a number of disputes that actually need court involvement and that needs to be adequately funded.

"And I think that they need to make sure that whatever any new processes look like, there is adequate funding for that."

She said the Family Court costs would just keep snowballing if the system could not resolve disputes at an early stage.

National's justice spokesperson Mark Mitchell declined to comment.