Family Court 'seeing the wheels falling off'

Last week Fairfax Media revealed that problems with a new system for processing Family Court cases in Auckland was putting lives at risk. We were flooded with responses from parents and lawyers.

Orewa family lawyer Patrick Kennelly, exasperated by the centralised "hub" system for dealing with Family Court cases in the Auckland region, recently wrote to Courts Minister Chester Borrows.

"The lives of children in the greater Auckland area are now dependent upon you acting in a decisive manner to alleviate the problems being created by your ministry," he wrote.

The last straw for Kennelly was a custody case involving a terminally ill child from Mangawhai, more than 100km north of Auckland. He had asked for dispensation for the hearing to be held at Warkworth, 79km north of Auckland, or the North Shore District Court, but the Ministry of Justice would not allow it. So the mother had to find volunteer caregivers to look after her child so she could leave home early enough to make it to the Auckland central court.

"That's the level of stupidity it's got to," Kennelly says. "That people are being forced to travel past two courts that are open and available."

He is one of many family lawyers in Auckland who say they have seen the wheels fall off the Family Court since the new system was introduced in February as part of widespread changes aimed at making the district courts more efficient and cost effective.

The Law Society suspects the ministry will roll out the system nationwide once it fixes the Auckland problems.

Under the new system, files once dealt with by outlying courts in Pukekohe, Papakura, North Shore and Waitakere are handled by processing "hubs" in Manukau and central Auckland.

Because the Ministry of Justice does not allow applications in urgent cases to be faxed or emailed, documents either have to be sent by courier or delivered in person.

Lawyers say the new system is a shambles, with affidavits going missing, judges not being given complete files, delays of up to several months for hearing dates, sealed orders not being sent, and emails and voice messages going unanswered.

Judges too are understood to be fuming. The Star-Times has learned that at a recent meeting they said they found it "hard to continue to accept the current position".

Principal Family Court judge Peter Boshier is understood to be upset that urgent custody cases involving domestic violence are taking up to two months to come before a judge, when he had implemented a system for dealing with them within 14 days.

The ministry has attacked the problem by throwing money at it, spending $232,000 hiring temporary staff to clear backlogs and flying in staff from other parts of the country. Sources say the cost blowout is close to $1 million, far more than any savings the new system would have supposedly delivered.

Last week, there were meetings between Borrows, ministry officials and Law Society representatives. Sources say Borrows seemed genuinely committed to solving the problem, but there is also a perception that he hadn't been kept fully informed of the scale of the situation by ministry officials.

Borrows said steps were being taken to fix the concerns, such as bringing in additional experienced staff from other regions.

"I have made perfectly clear that I expect the Ministry of Justice to work urgently with lawyers and judges to identify and fix these issues. I intend to closely watch the situation until I am satisfied they have met this expectation."

But lawyers are concerned that the model cannot be fixed.

"They say it was cost-cutting, but I don't see that there was any benefit financially," says North Shore lawyer Natalie Schumacher.

"It's like someone's come up with a flow chart of why it would make sense to have this one big hub, but the flow chart doesn't work when it comes to everyday people at grassroots level.

"When it comes to the mums and dads and grandparents going through the system - they're now seeing the wheels falling off."

South Auckland lawyer Selina Trigg says the Manukau court always had its problems, but "centralisation has just compounded it".

Recently she filed an application for a protection order for a female client. Normally, it would be issued within 24 hours, but the file was left sitting on someone's desk and they went on holiday for a week.

In another case, she had sought a paternity ruling because a man was denying he was the child's father and Internal Affairs was refusing to release the birth certificate. It took nine months to get a hearing.

But some people blame lawyers for the problems.

Craig Jackson, a psychologist and advocate for men and families who has been involved with the Family Court for 31 years, says "delays have been part and parcel of the Family Court system since its inception.

"The lawyers are complicit in the delays. They draw out cases to advantage their clients."

He says Family Court reforms recently announced by the Government will help, by reducing the number of cases in which lawyers will be involved.

Sunday Star Times