Māori families feel ignored by Family Court judges - report

11:01 pm on 27 July 2020

Most whānau Māori going through the Family Court feel ignored by judges and are left to navigate a confusing system without support, a new report has found.

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The experiences of 36 people in the family court system - ranging from parents, to grandparents and children - are outlined in the independent report titles Te Taniwha I Te Ao Ture-ā-Whānau.

It found 69 percent of people walking into the Family Court to address matters of child custody did not feel confident in the system as they did not understand it.

"We were so broken and destroyed by then. It would have helped if things had been explained what's going to happen and what's going on. We just couldn't work anything out," one survey participant said.

The report also found 72 percent of whānau did not feel included in the decision-making, with one person saying a judge completely dismissed their whānau when they wanted to speak in court.

"I put my hand up to say something and the judge said, 'can we hurry up with this, I haven't had lunch'. I had my pop with me he said, 'excuse me your honour'. The judge just said that the 'next court date is ... court's adjourned'. He then got up and walked out. I just started crying. He just ignored us and took no notice whatsoever," another survey participant said.

Lead author of the report and Whakauae researcher Dr Amohia Boulton said while the report findings weren't new, hearing from the affected families was.

"We've had many reports since the '80s pointing out issues with the care and protection system but what is new with this report is that it's the views of the families themselves - and it's Māori families, and it's non-Māori families.

"Both Māori and non-Māori found this family court system was broken and not working for them."

She said many whānau were not being notified about the family court hearing (44 percent of those surveyed).

"I mean that's a pretty significant issue when you've been waiting for months to have your hearing set and ... it's not communicated to you."

The report made three recommendations: that the Family Court use every hearing as an opportunity to engage with whānau; hearings be held on a Saturday in order so more whānau were able to attend and; an independent board with 50 percent of its membership Māori be set up to hear care and protection orders.

Report co-author Tania Williams Blyth said there were small changes the Family Court could make that didn't require legislative reform.

"When they think about doing things differently, it can't just be 'yes, we'll set up a Saturday court, yes you can bring the grandparents or the extended whānau - but extended whānau can't speak' - now if that's where we're heading to then that's not reform, that's just a continuation.

"There is absolutely nothing to stop - without a law change - to stop a family court judge saying, 'kia ora whānau, this is the application, this is what we're here for, do you understand that - and having that conversation, that's not difficult and that would be about respecting the mana of those who appear in your court."

Blyth said the Family Court should be looking at alternative approaches such as Te Pae Oranga, which has been set up by the District Court for people with drug and alcohol addictions.

"The Family Court itself, while it's supposed to be a therapeutic court, isn't, nor has it turned its mind to how they could best serve the community that they were designed to serve."

In a statement, Principal Family Court Judge Jacquelyn Moran said the court was determined to improve the experience for the vulnerable and disadvantaged.

She highlighted recent measures undertaken to do this, including ensuring all without notice applications to remove children from their families are referred to a local judge, so whānau can speak in person, and alternatives explored.

She said all Family Court judges were required to be culturally competent, and six of the 13 new appointments were Māori and spoke te reo.

Alongside the Ministry of Justice, the Family Court had also begun recruiting for 'lay advocates' who would teach families about the court process, and inform judges of any cultural issues.

Some 50 Family Justice Liason officers will also be established, which iwi are being consulted on.

Judge Moran said the report's proposal for a partnership "board" was not her decision to make and was up to elected lawmakers.

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