22 Aug 2023

Family court lawyer fears for safety after threats from people representing themselves

12:02 pm on 22 August 2023
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Photo: RNZ / Dan Cook

A Family Court Lawyer in Wairarapa says she fears for her safety after being threatened by people representing themselves in the family court.

Earlier this month RNZ reported that the number of people representing themselves in Family Court have more than doubled in the last 10 years, while the number of lawyers willing to take on legal aid work was dropping.

One lawyer, who spoke to RNZ anonymously, often acts for women in child custody disputes.

In some cases where fathers have decided to represent themselves, they had been abusive and threatening towards her, she said.

"My family's safety has been threatened and I've been harassed," she said.

The lawyer said most of the threats have been made through email correspondence.

Its correspondence that would usually be from lawyer to lawyer.

She said in some cases that went on for months, she had to continue to communicate with "psychologically abusive self-represented litigants," some who she said "may be on serious charges before the Criminal Court".

"I feel unsafe at the local court house. I feel concerned about what the next email might say, when I am checking my emails," she said.

Law Society family law chair Lauren Pegg said the society often heard of colleagues who had threats made against them.

"Often it's an unfortunate aspect of our work," she said.

But Pegg said threats did not just come from those that represented themselves.

"Sometimes these threats can come from parties who are represented by counsel or in our capacity as lawyer for child or other court appointed counsel."

With both children and personal issues at the forefront of cases, Pegg said family law was often "emotionally charged".

"People are feeling stressed and perhaps not thinking clearly, or at their best," she said.

"The people we deal with often have mental health or drug or alcohol issues."

But Pegg said threats were never ok.

The Wairarapa lawyer was calling for a fund to ensure everyone going through family court has some representation.

She said while overall her experience with people representing themselves had not been good, cases where she felt threatened were the exception.

Some of those threats had made her feel like quitting her job, she said.

Pegg said there was a shortage of family lawyers, particularly in the legal aid space, and it would concern her if lawyers did consider quitting their jobs due to threats.

This year the Ministry of Justice had run courses across the country on lawyer safety, she said.

However she said lawyers needed to report serious threats to the police.

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