1 Jul 2020

Family Court changes to come into force today

5:49 pm on 1 July 2020

The chair of an independent review into the Family Court says today's reforms are only the start of what needs to change in the family justice system.

Wellington Family Court and mediation room.

File photo. Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

New laws restoring the right to legal representation at the start of Care of Children disputes in the Family Court and allowing parties - where eligible - to access legal aid came into force today.

They adopt just a few of the recommendations set out in He Korowai Ture ā-Whānau, an independant review of the 2014 family justice reforms that were introduced by the previous National government.

Former Human Rights Commissioner Ros Noonan chaired the review that set out 69 recommendations on how the Family Court could be improved.

Noonan said today's changes are positive but remove only a handful of the barriers families face when trying to access justice.

"I think they're a good start but they're only a start and to get the changes that everybody wants to see to improve things for children, parents, whanau and caregivers in the family justice services the Minister needs to keep moving on the other recommendations."

Noonan was among half a dozen panel members who shared their thoughts on the reforms with Justice Minister Andrew Little in the Auckland District Court this afternoon.

Justice Minister Andrew Little said, while he'd like to see faster change, there was a lot of pressure on the Budget in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic.

"The Government is committed to seeing real change in the Family Court system. It needs to be a better, more accessible and more culturally appropriate place for a lot of the people who go through that court and we're committed to seeing that change happen."

He said today's changes would support parents through court and help reduce significant delays in reaching resolutions.

"They will ensure that parents and whānau are well-supported and kept safe during Family Court proceedings, will help address delays in the Family Court. Together these changes will better enable durable resolution of care of children disputes."

Applications under the Care of Children Act currently take on average 245 days to resolve; resulting in emotional harm to children, and stress and anxiety to their parents and whnau.

Little said restoring access to legal representation is expected to reduce the number of urgent parenting order applications and delays in the system.

"In addition to legal representation, we're establishing new Family Justice Liaison Officers (FLOs) within the Family Court. These people will ensure families and whnau receive information on the best possible options available, helping them to navigate the system.

"We're also increasing remuneration for lawyers for child to incentivise the recruitment and retention of skilled practitioners. This is the first increase to these rates since 1996 (notwithstanding GST increases). Funding increases for lawyers for child will increase each year for the next four years."

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