Government’s proposed changes to Family Court will make it less accessible

The New Zealand Law Society has filed its submission (and appendices) on the Family Court Proceedings Reform Bill to the Justice and Electoral Select Committee.

The Law Society supports the streamlining of court processes to increase efficiencies and reduce cost and delay.

However, it believes that two fundamental changes introduced by the bill – the restriction on the right to legal representation in some Care of Children Act proceedings, and the $897 fee imposed for mandatory Family Disputes Resolution (FDR) - will make the Family Court less accessible, efficient and effective.

Family Law Section chair Garry Collin says the Law Society supports the establishment of the new mandatory FDR service, in appropriate cases.

“Parents should be encouraged to use the FDR service to resolve their disputes without the need to access the Family Court.

“However, the $897 cost of FDR is a barrier that will mean that many parents who would otherwise be able to resolve matters with the assistance of qualified FDR providers, may not be able to access the service because of the cost.

“These are the parents whose income is just over the eligibility threshold for legal aid, and who will not qualify for a subsidy,” he says

Unless proceedings start without notice, the Bill removes the right of parents in cases involving parenting and guardianship applications to choose to have legal representation at the early stages of court processes.

Some parents will still be able to get legal advice and assistance outside of court for pre-hearing matters, but because the Bill also makes changes to the availability of legal aid, in most cases, it will not be available to pay for such assistance.

Mr Collin says that legal assistance, support and representation should be available to everyone, regardless of their level of income.

“If these changes are introduced, they will create greater inequalities between those who can afford legal advice and those who can’t.”

Mr Collin says that requiring parents to represent themselves in the Family Court will lead not only to a significant increase in costs to the Family Court in terms of judicial and court staff time, but also social and consequent economic costs to society.

Mr Collin says the Law Society is looking forward to presenting its submission before the select committee, and engaging with the Minister of Justice to find solutions to the concerns it has raised.