By Derek Cheng
5:30 AM Wednesday Apr 20, 2011
A shake-up of the Family Court could end counselling and mediation services, introduce more user charges and restrict cases that can come before the court.
Justice Minister Simon Power announced a review of the system yesterday, a week after he said legal aid in the Family Court would become harder to obtain and more expensive.
But one family court lawyer says the review is "frightening", and others are predicting essential services may be chopped and vulnerable parties be left without court protection.
He said stricter rules were needed on access to the court, as it dealt with too many trivial issues such as where a child went to school or spent their holidays.
Mr Power saidThe cost of the Family Court was rising and was unsustainable.
But it could be curtailed without compromising justice for vulnerable parties, such as children at risk of abuse or victims of domestic violence.
The review, led by the Ministry of Justice, will cover:
- The purpose, role, and functions of the court, and the role of lawyers, psychologists, mediators, counsellors, and social workers.
- Incentives for resolving disputes outside the court.
- The reasons for increasing costs.
The main blow-outs have been in professional services, such as counselling (from $37.6 million to $60.7 million in five years), and family legal aid (doubled to $50.3 million).
The review will pay particular attention to custody cases, which make up 39 per cent of court applications and often require counselling services and legal aid. They also take longer than other cases to resolve.
Among incentives to keep parties from taking cases to court were changes to legal aid announced last week, including a $100 user charge and a charge for parents to have "lawyer for child" services.
Mr Power said a strong system would help families deal with issues without needing court intervention.
But West Auckland Barrister Chambers lawyer Judith Surgenor said cases about a child's school or holiday destination were rare.
Judith Surgenor saidIt's tragic the minister is holding up those sorts of cases as the norm, not the exception …"
Use of services including "lawyer for child" and counselling and mediation often meant cases did not reach the court.
They're frightening reforms, really. People come to family court under massive stress, sometimes after years of violence. There are a number of supports and they are needed.
To slash and burn something you don't understand isn't particularly wise or fair.
The Justice Ministry is expected to issue a public consultation document in September.
The deputy chairwoman of the family law section of the Law Society, Caroline Hannan saidThe Government seemed to be narrowing the definition of the vulnerable.
Our view is that children who find themselves the subject of court proceedings are all vulnerable.
People have to be able to access the court if they are unable to resolve things themselves.
There are some cases where there is no clear cut answer.
By Derek Cheng