16 Oct 2022

New Zealand's 'brutal' family court system has to change - campaign

1:55 pm on 16 October 2022
Wellington District Court

A parent group called Humans of Family Court Aotearoa has launched a campaign to call for changes to the family court system. Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

A parent group is using a billboard campaign to call for urgent changes to New Zealand's "brutal" family court system.

The campaign launched by Humans of Family Court Aotearoa features stories from a collection of parents highlighting the trauma and poor outcomes they have endured while going through New Zealand's Family Court system.

Its spokesperson Jody Hopkinson said Family Court was "a scary and brutal place" and the billboards were about educating the wider public about how the system was "not working for the vast majority of us" - regardless of gender and race.

The Ministry of Justice said it is implementing recommendations from an independent review in 2019 but "transformation of family justice is a five to ten year project".

Humans of Family Court Aotearoa said families and children could not afford to wait any longer.

Its website featured heartfelt narratives of parents highlighting serious issues within the current system.

Parents told stories of the court's tolerating ongoing family violence and abuse, failing to acknowledge the wishes of children and protect their safety and wellbeing, and prolonged case times adding to the distress and suffering of those going through proceedings.

One story of a former partner who psychologically terrorises their child said: "My lawyer has told me if I keep saying how dangerous they are I risk losing custody of my child. I am beyond tired. My child is a pawn in my exes coercive control. There are no consequences for their actions. Ever. The lying and projection are exhausting."

Another said their concerns of sexual, psychological and emotional abuse had not been taken seriously in the court system. "The abuse I experienced while I was with my ex was nothing compared to the hellish abuse they are enabled to continue against us through Family Court. Their vexatious litigation is one more way for them to try and destroy me."

Hopkinson said the group was calling for a culture shift within Family Court.

"Currently, there seems to be a disconnect between the judiciary and the people they hand decisions down to.

"We ask that the voices of children and parents who have experienced violence or abuse from a partner are heard.

That safety and protection of children and parents should be central to the Family Court decision-making process."

University of Auckland Law Professor Mark Henaghan said Family Court needed more resources to support families and children.

An independent panel in 2019 that recommended the court needed "a major transformational change" to be more family and child friendly - and to have the support services it needed, got it "absolutely right", he said.

The 2019 Te Korowai Ture ā-Whānau report examined the impact of major changes made to the system in 2014 and made 69 recommendations for reform across five areas: child-centred processes; safety; inclusivity and responsiveness to culture and diversity; delay; and access to services and to the Family Court.

But Henaghan said reform had been slow.

Humans of Family Court Aotearoa is also critical of how the the Family Violence Act 2018 is being interpreted across the country.

It said while the legislation (which recognised that family violence was unacceptable in all its forms - including coercive control, financial abuse, psychological and sexual abuse and dowry-related abuse) was clear, currently the verdicts and interpretations of the legislation were not.

"There is no consistency across courtrooms, between the judiciary, or among other court-affiliated professionals about what constitutes domestic violence in all its forms. And how the recognition of this abuse informs custody decision-making," the group said in a statement.

Hopkinson said currently the outcome of cases was a "courthouse lottery".

Mark Henaghan also believes there needs to be more consistency.

A recent survey conducted by Humans of Family Court Aotearoa of 344 parents and grandparents who had been through, or were currently going through, the Family Court System found that 79 percent of respondents described their experience with the court as negative.

Seventy-three percent of respondents said it had a negative impact on their child, while 60 percent said the experience of going through Family Court made them feel less safe.

Hopkinson said it demonstrated "the urgent need for transformation".

She said the organisation's vision for the Family Court system "has a zero tolerance to violence policy which underpins every decision made within its walls.

"A Family Court that protects the rights and safety of children and their parents and upholds the new Family Violence Act 2018, which recognises that violence in all forms is unacceptable."

Jody Hopkinson hopes their campaign lets those who have been through the court "know that they're not alone".

She said the system at the moment "you wouldn't wish it on your worse enemy ... not even your ex partner".

The general manager for courts and justice services policy at the ministry, Sam Kunowski, said reform was pending.

"The ministry understands that going through Family Court proceedings can be stressful and emotionally draining, especially when children are involved.

"There is a wide range of work underway aimed at transforming the family justice system, improving understanding of and responses to family violence, and ensuring people are listened to and treated with respect."

The first phase of implementing all the recommendations in Te Korowai Ture ā-Whānau was "well advanced" but "transformation of the family justice system is a five to ten-year project", Kunowski said.

"Due to the scale of change proposed and the resourcing needed, a phased approach to implementing the Panel's recommendations is needed."

In May 2020, the government agreed $62 million over four years for initiatives to respond to issues exacerbated by the Covid-19 environment, such as delay and additional stress on children, families and whānau, including:

  • resinstating legal aid for eligible parties;
  • have established the Kaiārahi - Family Court Navigators role to help parents and whānau navigate the family justice system, with the aim of supporting better family justice outcomes;
  • and increasing lawyer for child remuneration to support the retention of skilled practitioners.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs