WHAT DOES THE FAMILY COURT CURRENTLY DO?
The Family Court of New Zealand deals with a wide range of issues many of which involve the care of children. The Family Court aims to help people sort out their own issues during a divorce or separation and that the interests of children are represented.
It has provided free counselling and mediation to help parents and guardians reach agreement regarding care arrangements for children. A Family Court hearing before a judge is a last resort if parents cannot agree. Currently if a court is deciding day to day care or contact issues with a child, the court must appoint a lawyer for the child (at no cost to the parties) to ascertain the children’s views and all issues relevant to their welfare and best interests are presented to the court. Social workers and psychologists also provide important information to the court about the child.
Currently the parents or guardians can also have lawyers represent them in court proceedings.
THE ANNOUNCED CHANGES TO FAMILY COURT PROCESSES
The government has announced a number of changes, which will impact negatively on New Zealanders who find themselves in the Family Court in parenting disputes involving the care of their children. Included among these changes are the following:
1) As of October 2012, your right to six (6) free sessions of counselling/mediation to resolve relationship and parenting problems without having to go to court has been axed.
2) By October 2013:
(i) Your right to be represented by a lawyer in most Family Court proceedings will be lost. Parents or guardians will have to prepare their own documents and argue their case before a judge;
(ii) Children will not be represented by court appointed lawyers unless a child is physically or mentally at risk;
(iii) All court counselling and mediation services will incur up-front fees, and unless a judge believes it will cause extreme hardship, parents will be billed for a third of the cost of a court appointed lawyer (usually to represent the child) and psychologist.
There has been very little publicity about these changes.
WHAT IS BEHIND THE PROPOSED CHANGES?
The above-mentioned proposed changes are entirely fiscally driven. They are being rushed through by the government with limited consultation and without any piloting or review of court documents or consultation with the public to assess the impact that the final proposed changes will have on families. This is entirely unsatisfactory given the important role that the family has traditionally had in our society.
HOW WILL THESE CHANGES AFFECT YOU AND YOUR FAMILY?
Every family member in New Zealand that has been affected by a divorce or separation will potentially be disadvantaged by these changes that the government has proposed.
Will your child’s views and needs be heard ad taken into account?
There is significant risk that children’s voices, which until now have featured prominently in the Family Court dispute resolution process, will be overlooked. The government’s proposal do not provide for a way of independently ascertaining children’s views and making these known to the Family Court before binding orders are made.
Without support from a lawyer vulnerable parents may not disclose issues of concern and may settle for unsafe agreements, which can put their children at risk.
Would you feel comfortable representing yourself?
Removing lawyers from most proceedings will mean that parents bullied in the home will be bullied in Family Court hearings, if they even get that far.
The many parents or guardians who cannot read, or who are non-English speakers, do not have access to the internet, or have problems understanding processes or forms will be disadvantaged. Many may not be articulate or confident enough to represent themselves in the Family Court.
Legal Aid will not be available for those cases where people cannot have a lawyer. If people require assistance from a lawyer to help them prepare for their case they will have to pay for a lawyer, if they can afford one, and the lawyer cannot represent them in court.
People without legal advice and representation are more likely to have their dispute go to a full blown court hearing, than to negotiate safe outcomes for their children. Court hearings will add to the stress that families experience, which will compound their matters.
Will you be able to afford to use the Family Court?
The additional costs for filing applications, counselling, counsel for the child and psychologists appointments, and court hearings will mean that many New Zealanders will not be able to afford to access the Family Court.
THE GOVERNMENT IS AWARE OF THE RISKS BUT IS DETERMINED TO IMPLEMENT THE PROPOSED CHANGES NEVERTHELESS
The government is aware that the following risks are associated with its proposed reforms:
“Judges are likely to spend more time on proceedings in which parties are not represented, including managing any power imbalances between the parties.”
“Costs associated with going to Court … could mean that some people that should come to the Family Court do not.”
“Fewer children will have lawyer for child…” In those few cases where lawyer for the child will be available, their involvement will be severely curtailed. The risk is that “[l]awyer for child may have insufficient time to gather information and assess what is in the child’s welfare and best interests.”
“The Court may not be in a good position to decide what is in a child’s welfare and best interests as no one would be independently advocating for the child’s best interests.”
“Outcomes for children and vulnerable people could be worse.”
(Source: Family Court Review: Regulatory Impact Statement).
WHAT CAN I DO TO STOP THESE CHANGES FROM BEING IMPLEMENTED?
If you do not want the above-mentioned changes to occur then sign this petition and get others to sign it as well. The government needs to know that these risks are unacceptable to the New Zealand public.
This petition will be passed on to Parliament.