Family Court Proceeding Reform Bill
The Family Court Proceedings Reform Bill results from considerable consultation over the last year between the Ministry of Justice and various parties involved in family disputes and family violence. The Family Court Review recommends a large number of changes to simplify and streamline the Family Court procedures, but a number of those changes make it harder for struggling families to access the court and to obtain justice and support, especially regarding family violence. has recently announced a number of changes to the Family Court and its applications. These have been introduced into parliament in the Family Court Reform Bill, where it is open for submissions until the end of February 2013.
According to the Family Court Review :
The reforms largely focus on Care of Children Act 2004 matters, which include standard issues such as where parents simply cannot agree about day-to-day care and contact arrangements. They also include important changes to other areas of the Family Court’s jurisdiction, such as relationship property proceedings. The most significant proposal is to establish an out-of-court Family Dispute Resolution service. This service will help people to resolve their parenting disputes more quickly and without the expense of court proceedings. Family Dispute Resolution also may be a tool for settling relationship property disputes.
Adverse effects of Bill
While some of these reforms are welcomed, there are many that are likely to adversely affect the ability of people to resolve family separation or violence issues. Many of the support processes in the current legislation will be cut back or have access restricted. And there is a charge of more than $900 for families wishing to access the new dispute process, as well as restrictions on the use of legal services.
Tania Belz, Lawyer of the Family Law Centre - Whangarei Limited, a board member of the National Network of Stopping Violence and a collective member of Te Puna O Te Aroha Maori Women's refuge, argues that aspects of the Bill will mean that many women and children subject to violence in relationships will no longer have the resources for legal representation, will not have access to proper advice or counselling, and will in effect lose any judicial remedy they have under the current law. She argues that the Bill will:
- take away people's fundamental right to legal representation thus leading to a lot of family violence issues on cases not being identified for the court due to people's inability to consult a lawyer specialising in the area.
- reduce the likelihood of family violence being identified or addressed, due to the way the allegation is framed by non lawyers such that it might compromise the safety of children and women.
- result in those with disabilities, language, literacy or financial issues struggling to represent themselves against people who may be able to afford a lawyer to prepare their papers and coach them through the court system
- mean that young persons of 15 or 16 years of age may not be represented at all in court.
She adds that:
There are particular difficulties for men who may have Protection Orders against them. How do they serve documents? How are they served documents? How do they try and negotiate? There are risks in the Family Court waiting rooms and for those attending FD
There are particular issues for women who have been subjected to violence or exposed to significant power imbalances.
It marginalises the voice of the child & thus breaches our international Human Rights obligations in that lawyers for children will be appointed only in some cases and not in all
The introduction of a new $1000-plus fee to access the new ‘Family Dispute Resolution Service’, which will be the first stop for most family law issues is prohibitive and limits people's access to it as most people are being assessed for that on current tight legal aid criteria.
In most cases, it is currently free to access the Court and the counselling services it provides, with six sessions available to couples to help sort out their problems – this will no longer be the case.
Further discussion about the issue and the court case and petition organised against these aspects of the Bill can be seen on the website www.childrenneedavoice.com.