By Isaac Davison NZHerald
5:30 AM Friday Aug 3, 2012
Feuding couples will have to pay $900 if they want state support for resolving their disputes as the Government aims to preserve the Family Court for cases involving vulnerable children and domestic violence. The first major reforms of the Family Court will focus the role of the system on serious and urgent disputes, while attempting to resolve all other matters out of court and as quickly as possible.
This meant lawyers would play less of a role in the new court system, with parents expected to represent themselves on routine cases such as day-to-day care of children.
The Opposition said this charge effectively privatised dispute resolution services, and would be a barrier for families caught up in unhappy domestic situations.
Announcing the reforms yesterday, Justice Minister Judith Collins saidI see a lot of value in encouraging people not to come to the court in the first place.
Families are going to be far happier and resolutions are going to be far more concrete if they can be encouraged and helped to actually resolve the dispute themselves.
She spoke of the stress to children of being dragged through the court system, interviewed by lawyers, and made to wait an average of 12 months for a settlement.
The reforms would scrap free counselling sessions for resolving conflict. Families which used to be able to get six free counselling sessions, would have to pay a fee of $897 to access a new Family Dispute Resolution (FDR) service.
Mrs Collins said lower income earners would be subsidised, and the remaining cost was the equivalent of an hour's legal fees.
Labour's justice spokesman Charles Chauvel saidCombined with cuts to legal aid that have already been made, and those yet to be announced, it paints a bleak picture.
Family disputes that should be resolved quickly and freely will now be prolonged - in some cases indefinitely.
Asked whether removing free counselling services could be counter-productive to resolving conflict, she said counsellors would be employed at the FDR. A judge could also order counselling for a family. Under the reforms, applications to the Family Court would be divided into priorities, or "tracks". Urgent cases, such as those involving danger to children, would go immediately before a court.
For all other cases - such as deciding which parent a child spends a holiday with - parents would have to defend themselves. They would be provided with resources such as a affidavit template to make up for not having lawyers.
If a resolution could not be found, a formal hearing involving lawyers would be called.
When former Justice Minister Simon Power called for a review of the Family Court last year, a total of 51 family court judges were dealing with up to 65,000 court applications a year.
The changes were expected to encourage 4000 disputes a year to be resolved at home instead of in court.
They would also save $70 million over four years, including $9 million a year from scrapping the counselling service.
* Replaces free counselling with dispute resolution service, which charges $900.
* Families must go through the service before taking their case to court, unless it is an urgent case.
* Creates three new routes through court, one for serious cases, two for routine cases.
* Lawyers will only be present for serious cases, parents will represent themselves otherwise.
* Increases penalty for breaching protection orders, from 2 to 3 years jail.
* Classes "economic abuse", such as withholding money, as domestic abuse.
Family Court in for sweeping changes (NZ)
Radio NZ reports
Sweeping changes to the Family Court system include a process to reduce the number of cases ending up in the court, and doing away with lawyers for routine matters.
Announcing the changes on Thursday, Justice Minister Judith Collins said they put children first.
Cases will be streamed before they get to court, with a fast track for urgent cases involving abuse and simple and standard tracks where lawyers will not be needed, saving money on legal aid.
Except for cases involving domestic violence or child abuse, families will first have to take part in a disputes resolution process, at a cost of about $900. If the process does not resolve an issue, a case can still be pursued through the court.
Ms Collins says most applicants to the court will need to complete a Parenting Through Counselling course, to help them understand how the court process can affect their child.
Other changes include questionnaire affidavits to simplify court processes and a new category for domestic violence called economic abuse.
Family Court judges are to be given the power to stop people from constantly reapplying to the court to resolve their disputes.
There will also be an immediate cut to free counselling through the court - from up to six hours down to one.
Ms Collins says the reforms are the most significant since the Family Court was established 30 years ago. She says the review of the court completed earlier this year highlighted the need for a modern, efficient system that's more responsive to children and vulnerable people.
Labour's justice spokesperson, Charles Chauvel, says the changes will disadvantage families that can't afford the $900 fee. He says the court is currently free because it's recognised that vulnerable children need disputes resolved.
It's estimated the changes will save about $70 million over four years.
Family Court to focus on needs of children
By Isaac Davison
2:54 PM Thursday Aug 2, 2012
Free counselling will be dropped in a reform of the Family Court that will focus on the needs of children instead of resolving relationship disputes.
Justice Minister Judith Collins announced the plans at Parliament this afternoon.
The Family Court handles about 65,000 applications a year and a new Family Dispute Resolution service would help families resolve more disputes outside court.
The service is expected to cut the number of Family Court cases by 4000 a year and result in 2000 fewer children going to court each year.
The reforms would also help fast-track family disputes with a risk of domestic violence.
Penalties for breaching protection orders would be increased and `economic abuse' would be recognised as a form of psychological abuse.
The reforms are expected to save $70 million over four years.
A review ordered by then justice minister Simon Power last year found the court's costs increased by 63 per cent in the five years to 2010.
A consultation paper said the system was "not financially sustainable'' and questioned whether the state should try to keep marriages together.
"There is also a duty under the Family Proceedings Act for judges, lawyers and counsellors to promote reconciliation for separating couples and, if that is not possible, conciliation,'' it said.
"The question was raised whether the Family Court should continue to be involved in promoting reconciliation, or whether it is more appropriate for the state to focus on conciliation and assisting families to resolve their disputes.''
In practice, this may mean dropping the free counselling service and expanding mediation. In Australia, the federal Government funds 65 ``family relationship centres'' which primarily provide mediation to help separating couples resolve disputes.
A survey by the Association of Counsellors found that 53 per cent of 1500 couples who sought court-funded counselling voluntarily, and 31 per cent of 300 couples who were directed into counselling by the court, "presented with the issue of possible separation but were helped to instead resolve their relationship issues and subsequently stayed together as a couple/family''.
Mr Collin said the minister had announced legislation to implement the changes would be introduced later this year and the Law Society would be making submissions on this.
The chairman of the Law Society's Family Law Section, Garry Collin saidWe will study the proposed changes in detail and assess their likely impact on all parties who use the Family Courts.
Maintaining a workable and efficient Family Court system which enables families to resolve their disputes is our key concern.
But Labour's justice spokesman Charles Chauvel said a fee of $897 to access the new Family Dispute Resolution service would be a huge barrier in obtaining justice for many families caught up in unhappy domestic situations.
Labour's justice spokesman Charles Chauvel saidJudith Collins has privatised family dispute resolution services today, and priced them out of the reach of many Kiwi families.
Many families will simply not be able to afford a new $900 fee to access what was previously a free service in recognition of the importance of ensuring parents of children in unhappy domestic situations are not deterred from getting assistance to resolve their differences promptly.