Government’s proposed changes to the Family Court puts children at risk

The New Zealand Law Society says children’s voices will be lost if the Family Court Proceedings Reform Bill stays in its current form.

Law Society President Jonathan Temm told the Justice and Electoral Select Committee today that the bill makes some positive changes for resolving family disputes, such as the proposal for a mandatory Family Disputes Resolution (FDR) service.

He said however that the cost of FDR and the exclusion of lawyers from the Family Court would greatly disadvantage many New Zealanders.

“The Family Court is the court of ordinary New Zealanders. It is the place where parents go when other ways of resolving the care of their children fail,” Mr Temm said.

In cases involving parenting and guardianship applications the bill removes the right of parents to legal representation in most instances, until a hearing, unless the case involves serious issues. Parties in these cases will not be entitled to legal aid.

Law Society Family Law Section Chair Garry Collin said the restriction on the right to legal representation in care of children proceedings and the $897 fee imposed for mandatory FDR would make the Family Court less efficient and accessible and would put children at risk.

“The voice of the child is lost under FDR and it is a breach of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child,” he said.

Mr Collin said the cost of FDR could create a barrier to justice and act as a disincentive to parties to resolve their disputes out of the Family Court.

Mr Temm said the recent court closures across the country along with the proposals under the Family Court reform would further reduce access to justice.

Mr Collin said the right to legal advice, support and representation should be available to everyone, regardless of their level of income.

“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,” he said.

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