Government announces panel to review 2014 Family Court Reforms

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Justice Minister Andrew Little has announced the details of the independent panel to review the 2014 Family Court reforms.

The panel will be chaired by former Chief Human Rights Commissioner Rosslyn Noonan. The other two members of the panel are family lawyers La Verne King and Chris Dellabarca.

The panel will be supported by an Expert Reference Group (membership to be announced), "giving the Panel access to people with expertise across a range of disciplines, including law, mediation, child psychology, kaupapa Māori and family violence to ensure its findings reflect current research and best practice."

The panel has been tasked with reviewing the Family Court reforms brought in by the previous Government in 2014. The Terms of Reference for the rewrite of the 2014 family justice system reforms provide more detailed information. The Government's media release also provides information.

Andrew Little said:

“The 2014 changes were meant to help people resolve parenting disputes without having to go to court, but have in fact led to the opposite as there’s been a huge increase in the number of urgent ‘without notice’ applications which have to be put before a Family Court judge.

I am concerned that families and children are losing out as a result of not receiving adequate advice and support during this distressing time. The last Government removed access to lawyers in many cases and I’m concerned about how this and the other changes have impacted on access to justice."

Andrew Little said the Panel has been directed to take a human rights approach with a focus on the best interests of the child:

“A human rights approach will ensure everyone’s perspectives are considered, including survivors of family violence, and men who say they’re not being given the opportunity to do some of the parenting when relationships end. Talking with children who have experienced the Family Court system will also be vital for establishing how the system can work better for those who need it most."

Watch a recording of the full media briefing from Justice Minister Andrew Little and Panel Chair Rosslyn Noonan from Radio NZ.

The Panel is finalising a consultation plan to invite feedback from the public. More information will be available on the Ministry of Justice website or you can email FamilyJusticeReforms@justice.govt.nz.

Update: Members of the Expert Reference Group have been announced.

Background information

The Family Court reforms came into affect in 2014 under the previous Government. They were first announced in 2012.

Concerns have been raised about the impact of the reforms, including lack of access to lawyers and the introduction of Family Dispute Resolution (see further in the previous NZFVC stories below).

Chief District Court Judge Jan-Marie Doogue recently wrote about delays resulting from the reforms (and a decreasing judicial workforce).

In May 2018, the Ministry of Justice released evaluation reports of the 2014 Family Court reforms. The reports identified a number of areas of concern.

See these previous NZFVC stories for more background information on the reforms:

Court of Appeal rules Family Court decision on protection order was 'wrong', July 2017

Access to lawyers and family court reforms, March 2016

Call for inquiry into equality of access to justice, July 2015

Government says family justice reforms proving "highly successful", November 2014

Criticisms of Family Court reforms continue; legal aid charges for family cases reduced, October 2012

Wider issues in the Family Court

The review does not include an overall review of the Family Court. If additional issues are raised during the process, the Terms of Reference state the panel may "recommend further work be undertaken on specific issues which the panel considers it has not been able to explore sufficiently, or that were outside the terms of reference but which could benefit from being considered in the context of its recommendations." (p.2)

In 2017, the  Backbone Collective was launched to give a national voice to survivors of violence against women. They have published a number of reports highlighting concerns about the Family Court, based on surveys of victims. See our previous story, Backbone Collective releases report on children's experiences of the Family Court for the latest report and links to previous reports.

Following the announcement of the review, 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.

The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women recently called for the Government to establish a Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Family Court Systems. Their recommendations on NZ's 8th period CEDAW report stated (page 13):

"... the Committee is concerned about the apparent crisis within the Family Courts system, reflected in mistreatment of women, particularly women victims of domestic violence. While welcoming the upcoming review of the Family Court announced by the Minister of Justice and Courts, the Committee is concerned that this review will be focused on the 2014 Family Court reforms alone, and will not examine the root causes of the systemic lack of trust and insensitivity to women victims of domestic violence apparently entrenched in the Family Court. In particular, the Committee is concerned that:

(a) Risk assessment is being performed in only few of the cases where violence is reported by the woman, as a result of the removal of the Bristol Clause during the 2014 reforms;

(b) Mandatory mediation and joint partner courses are implemented even in situations of domestic violence, including when protection orders are in place, thus exposing the female victim to heightened risk;

(c) There are no particular provisions to courts to consider domestic violence, whether directed at the mother or at the child, when deciding on child custody, and judges reportedly recommend shared physical custody even when fathers are abusive to them or to their mothers;

(d) Courts, lawyers for children and social workers are routinely resorting to the Parental Alienation Syndrome theory despite its being refuted internationally;

(e) Girls between 16 and 18 years of age can marry with parental consent." 

Minister Little told media he would not consider a Royal Inquiry in response to the UN Committee's recommendation.

Earlier in 2018, media outlet Newsroom investigated children being uplifted by Police to enforce parenting orders made by the Family Court.

Related news

An Australian Parliamentary inquiry conducted in 2017 found the family law system can fail to support and protect people experiencing violence. 

A National Domestic and Family Violence Bench Book recently released/updated by the Australasian Institute of Judicial Administration includes a section on dynamics of domestic and family violence, including myths and misunderstandings about domestic violence.

In March 2018, NZFVC hosted a panel discussion "Parental alienation” and family courts: A conversation on research and practice with international expert on violence against women Professor Elizabeth Sheehy from the University of Ottawa, Deborah Mackenzie and Catriona MacLennan. A video recording is available at the link above.

Selected and related media

Mother forced to pay $92/hr to visit son in state care, NZ Herald, 02.09.2018

Family Court judges raised concerns with new Ministry 10 times, Radio NZ, 23.08.2018

‘It clearly isn’t working’: Andrew Little on his crusade to reform criminal justice, The Spinoff, 20.08.2018

More diversity for smarter justice reforms, Beehive Press Release, 20.08.2018

Women rarely lie, they can’t ‘just leave’ & leaving won’t always stop the violence: Myths about DV debunked, Women's Agenda, 10.08.18

Andrew Little on the 'crisis' in criminal justice, Radio NZ, 09.08.2018

NZAP Press Release: Family Court Counsellors Needed, Press Release: New Zealand Association of Psychotherapists (NZAP), Scoop, 06.08.2018

Justice Minister says exes negotiating alone in Family Court over future care of their kids 'unrealistic' and 'too much to expect', One News, 02.08.2018

Family Court review welcomed, Law Society news statements, 02.08.2018

Government appoints panel to review Family Court changes, Stuff, 01.08.2018

Attorney-General restarts recruitment for Family Court head, Radio NZ, 25.07.2018

More modern and effective courts and tribunals are a step closer, Beehive press release, 25.07.2018

Delayed review into pressured Family Court to get underway, Radio NZ, 24.07.2018

Sobering accounts of domestic violence by Judge Phil Connell and victim Mereana Love, NZ Herald, 23.07.2018

Human rights commissioner Jackie Blue backs call for special UN probe into violence against women in NZ and Family Court response, NZ Herald, 22.07.2018

Head of the Family Court retires from the bench, Radio NZ, 03.07.2018

Drawn in and shut out - a grandmother's view of divorce, Stuff, 30.06.2018

Bail decision forced terrified woman to give up her home and flee to a refuge with her children, Stuff, 30.06.2018

What it's like to be 13 and stuck in the middle of a bitter custody battle, Stuff, 30.06.2018

One woman's Family Court struggle: 'It would be easier to deal with if my son had died', Stuff, 29.06.2018

Facing up to the fight for family, Stuff, 29.06.2018

Access to 'competent' lawyers vital, retired Family Court judge says, Stuff, 29.06.2018

Review pending for clogged Family Court, Stuff, 29.06.2018

Family court 'a law unto itself', Stuff, 29.06.2018

Looking at separation through a legal lens, Stuff, 29.06.2018

Terrified woman at refuge is willing to break the law for her kids, Stuff, 04.06.2018

Children left 'in limbo' by Family Court system - barrister, Stuff, 02.06.2018

Māori lawyers say Family Court not working for whānau, Radio NZ, 31.05.2018

Family Court problems run deep for whānau - Māori lawyers, Radio NZ, 31.05.2018

Judge shortage pushing courts to crisis point, New Zealand Bar Association says, NZ Herald, 28.05.2018

Chief Judge: 'Robbing Peter to pay Paul', Newsroom Pro, 28.05.2018

Criminal case backlog to surge as judges redistributed to Family Court, Stuff, 27.05.2018

Judges' security concerns result in court hearings being adjourned or vacated, Stuff, 23.05.2018

Fears for children's safety over delays caused by lack of security at south Auckland courthouses, NZ Herald, 23.05.2018

Family Court reforms a failure: research, Newsroom, 30.04.2018

Justice Minister Andrew Little concerned about access to justice in Family Court, Stuff, 10.04.2018

Children left suffering by Family Court changes - Little, Radio NZ, 05.04.2018

Judges say don't blame them for Family Court delays, Radio NZ, 05.04.2018

Labour flags changes to the Family Court, Radio NZ, 05.04.2018

Family Court’s handling of violence under scrutiny, Newsroom, 22.03.2018

On her deathbed, domestic violence victim challenges Family Court failings, Stuff, 17.03.2018