Backbone Collective releases new report on Lawyer for Child

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The Backbone Collective has released a fifth report on the Family Court, focussed on the Lawyer for Child.

The report, Seen and not Heard: Children in the New Zealand Family Court - Part Two: Lawyer for Child? (2018), examines how the Lawyer for Child role is working for women and their children who have experienced violence/abuse. The lawyer for the child service gives judges the ability to appoint an independent lawyer for children in Family Court proceedings.

The report is based on surveys of mothers who have experienced violence/abuse and been involved Family Court proceedings, and other sources including legislation, official document and information obtained under the Official Information Act (further details in the report). From the surveys, mothers reported:

  • In 11% of cases, the Lawyer for Child had not met with the children they were representing
  • Only 21% of children felt heard and understood by their lawyer
  • Lawyer for Child accurately told the court what the child wanted in 30% of cases
  • In 59% of cases, children were denied a support person while meeting with Lawyer for Child

Mothers also said:

  • 37% of Lawyer for Child accused the mother of "parental alienation"
  • In 46% of cases, the report written by Lawyer for Child led to unsafe parenting orders
  • Risk and safety assessments for children were carried out in 2% of cases

In the 2016/17 year:

  • There were 12,148 Lawyer for Child appointments made
  • The cost was $32 million

The report notes that despite this and concerns being having raised previously by various bodies, there is little oversight or accountability.

The authors highlight that both New Zealand legislation (e.g. Care of Children Act 2004) and United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCROC) require children's voices to be heard and taken into account when decisions are being made about them.

The authors say:

"Mothers rely on Lawyer for Child to advocate for their children, to help them be safe when there has been violence and abuse. Children desperately need an advocate in the adult centered environment that is the Family Court, but Lawyer for Child is not the competent choice to fulfill that role; they may know the law, but they do not know how to work with children and how violence and abuse impacts on children." (p.4)

The authors recommend three changes the Government could make reasonably quickly:

"1.Establish a national network of independent, specialist trained children’s advocates to provide safety assessments for the judge and to work alongside children who are involved in the Family Court to represent the welfare and best interests of children and to ensure their voices are heard.
2. Give children access to free trauma counselling if they have experienced violence and abuse.
3. Establish an independent complaints system where children can go if they are not being heard or feel unsafe in the Family Court."

They suggest these services "could be funded by either ceasing the Lawyer for Child  service all together or reconfiguring it, so the lawyer only provides legal advice and no longer ventures into territory they are not trained or skilled in – the safety, welfare and best interests of children."

They say "If the Lawyer for Child service is to continue in any form there needs to be urgent training in domestic and sexual violence and the introduction of evidence-based practice for all professionals working in the Family Court." 

The full set of recommendations are discussed in more detail in the report under the following headings:

  • Urgently establish a Royal Commission of Inquiry
  • Introduce independent child advocates, risk assessment, trauma counselling and specialist legal services  
  • Ensure all practice is evidence based
  • Comprehensive, ongoing and mandatory training for all Lawyers for Child
  • Establish an independent body accountable for all 'specialists' working with children in the Family Court  
  • Establish a quality management and continuous improvement mechanism
  • Develop a new model for children involved in the Family Court

A video of quotes from children is available on the Backbone Collective Facebook page.

This is the second report in the Seen and not Heard series from Backbone Collective. The first report focused on how the Family Court responds to children when they and their mothers have experienced violence and abuse.

Backbone is calling for a Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Family Court. Justice Minister Andrew Little has announced the Government will review the Family Court. Further details are expected this month.

Background information

See these previous NZFVC stories:

Backbone releases report on Family Court appeals and complaints

Media investigates Family Court orders and "disturbing" footage of uplifting children

Backbone Collective: "overwhelmingly negative feedback" on the Family Court

Backbone Collective releases first report on the Family Court 
Story includes a list of relevant research and resources

New collective for survivors of violence against women launched: The Backbone Collective

Related news

The Ministry of Justice has recently released a number of reports reviewing the 2014 reforms to the Family Court. The reports highlight a number of issues since the reforms.

The New Zealand Law Society's Family Law Section announced it has updated its Lawyer for Child Best Practice Guidelines (March 2018).

Media has reported that police are protecting judges' homes from a group of fathers who are angry about Family Court decisions related to their cases. Justice Minister Andrew Little said the protests are "just wrong" and "very disturbing," saying there are other ways to appeal or voice disapproval.

A recent Australian Parliamentary inquiry found the family law system can fail to support and protect people trying to escape violence.

Selected media

Report 5 - seen and not heard - lawyer for child

Lawyers failing children in the Family Court system: survey, Newsroom, 03.05.2018

Report shows Family Court systems are failing, Radio NZ, 01.05.2018

Mother calls for change to law that allows her abuser to deny her a support person at meeting over child's future, Stuff, 26.04.2018

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

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 video, Stuff, 17.03.2018