Panel appointed to rewrite Family Court reforms

Updated

Family Court reform panel chairwoman Rosslyn Noonan and Justice Minister Andrew Little discuss work to overhaul the current system. Photo: Sam Sachdeva.

The Government has formed a panel to rewrite its predecessor’s Family Court reforms, with Justice Minister Andrew Little saying too many people feel traumatised after going through the current system.

The announcement comes almost a year after Newsroom’s Taken by the State investigation, which detailed flaws within the family justice system and revealed disturbing footage of children carried away by police.

Speaking to media on Wednesday afternoon, Little said the panel would be made up of former Chief Human Rights Commissioner Rosslyn Noonan, acting as chair, and family law experts La Verne King and Chris Dellabarca. It would also be supported by an expert reference group.

He was keen for the panel to take a human rights approach to rewriting the reforms, saying women - particularly victims of domestic violence - and men did not feel like they were being heard.

“Of course we know that for a lot of children, applications are taking a much longer time to sort out, and that's having an impact on them in terms of settling their care arrangements so they can get on with their lives too.”

“What's important however is people, even if they feel disappointed with the result, that a few months afterwards they can look back on it and say, ‘You know what, in the end I was treated fairly, I was treated well, I haven’t been traumatised by this, I'm happy to kind of pick up my life and get on with it’.”

Little acknowledged those going before the Family Court, like any judicial process, could still feel “short-changed” by the result, but said processes could still be improved.

“What's important however is people, even if they feel disappointed with the result, that a few months afterwards they can look back on it and say, ‘You know what, in the end I was treated fairly, I was treated well, I haven’t been traumatised by this, I'm happy to kind of pick up my life and get on with it’.”

Little said he received regular correspondence from people who felt traumatised by the current Family Court system, adding: “If that word isn’t used, it’s certainly what is being described.”

Without-notice spike 'complete opposite of intention'

One issue raised by Newsroom’s investigation was a sharp rise in the number of “without-notice” applications, where the responding party is not made aware of the application and therefore unable to dispute it - as had been used in the case where the child was uplifted by police.

Little said the spike was “completely the opposite of what was intended” by the 2014 reforms, and needed to change so the court could work effectively for those going before it.

While the use of police in Family Court-ordered uplifts was beyond the scope of the review, Little said it was clear the approach did not appear to be in the interests of children.

“I go back to the fundamental principle in those Family Court proceedings which is that the welfare of the child is paramount, and I would simply say in relation to the images that we saw in those cases last year, the way those children were uplifted did not accord in my view with the paramountcy principle of the welfare of the child.

“I would hope by now Oranga Tamariki, the police and whoever else have now got a protocol where that simply wouldn’t happen again.”

“If people can’t get advice or don’t have somebody there who can assist them and help them navigate their way through what is an emotionally difficult exercise, then they will not participate in it.”

Little said he had heard of people “actively avoiding” the family dispute resolution process, as those using the mechanism were not allowed to use a lawyer.

“If people can’t get advice or don’t have somebody there who can assist them and help them navigate their way through what is an emotionally difficult exercise, then they will not participate in it.”

The panel had been asked to report back to him by the end of May next year, with any law changes unlikely to take effect before the end of 2019.

Noonan said it was a privilege to chair the panel, and the group understood the urgency of the situation.

“This is a court where we need...to ensure that people can have a high degree of confidence in it because this deals with families at their most fraught…

“It’s hard for parents in that situation but it can also be particularly damaging for children if we don’t get it right.”

While the panel had a “tight timeframe” in which to complete its work, Noonan said it would benefit from access to significant work already undertaken by the Ministry of Justice and the University of Otago.

Reaction to the announcement

Backbone Collective co-founder Deborah Mackenzie expressed significant doubts over whether the submission process would be able to keep the information of women and children safe.

Because the review was “low-level”, it could not guarantee protections for people who wanted to make submissions. At this stage, it wasn’t even yet known whether the review would be subject to the Official Information Act. If so, women and children’s sensitive information could be exposed, Mackenzie said.

“A Royal Commission of Inquiry is the only level of inquiry that can lift the rock and look at what’s underneath,” she said.

Another problem was how the many gag orders placed on women (and children) by the Family Court might skew the review process.

“A lot more transparency and clarity is needed in order to make an informed decision whether to participate,” Mackenzie said.

Lawyer Catriona MacLennan said she was pleased with the development, but, reluctantly, also felt she should say ‘I told you so’.

“Honestly, if I had to sum up what I thought … that would be it. Victim advocates, domestic violence agencies .. we all warned the government not to make the changes that they did in 2014.”

A significant change to the Family Court MacLennan hopes for is an end to the use of Parental Alienation Syndrome - often used to deny and minimise domestic violence. PAS renders the testimonies of women and children redundant by claiming they have been coached to say what they say.

MacLennan would also like to see counselling - completely abolished in 2014 - reinstated in the review.