Plans for Family Court attacked

OLIVIA CARVILLE
Last updated 05:00 04/02/2013

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Sweeping changes to the Family Court system will silence children, impose financial barriers on parents and lead to "bloody" legal battles and a spike in domestic violence, welfare agencies and experts fear.

The suggested changes include a compulsory $900 family dispute service, axing counselling sessions and restricting access to legal representation for parents and children.

The Government is proposing the changes to dilute the number of cases going before the court, as its costs ballooned to $142 million in 2010/2011.

With a deadline for submissions on the bill looming, family lawyers, welfare agencies and community organisations have slammed the bill as a cost-saving scheme that will cause vulnerable families and children to suffer.

If the proposed changes are given the green light, families will have to go through the Family Disputes Resolution (FDR) Service, without legal representation, and foot the $897 bill (the cost will only be subsidised for low-income earners).

Counselling sessions will also be slashed from six hours to one and if the parties cannot reach an agreement during FDR, the matter will go to court and lawyers will be appointed only when it reaches a full hearing. However, urgent cases involving abuse will be fast-tracked through the system.

Most agencies and experts approved the proposed FDR service, but seriously opposed its compulsory cost.

Experienced Christchurch family lawyer Erin Ebborn held grave concerns many families would be left "extremely vulnerable and left to go it alone" under the new changes. She feared restricted access to lawyers and the $897 FDR fee would become "daunting hurdles" to people needing help.

Many of Ebborn's clients had limited literacy, mental health issues or spoke English as a second language. She said they would struggle to fill out legal forms, speak in court on their own behalf and fully understand the system without guidance.

The community was "not aware of the extent of the reforms", she said.

Women's refuge agencies also feared the proposed "barriers" could see families shy away from the system and try to deal with the dispute in their own hands.

"If we make it more difficult for victims of family violence to escape and seek legal representation, the effects will be an increase in the risks of family violence," Women's Refuge chief executive Nicola Woodward said.

Canterbury University associate law professor John Caldwell said New Zealand's Family Court system was internationally respected and he feared the changes could "throw the baby out with the bath water".

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There were issues in the court that needed to be addressed, but Caldwell did not believe they justified the "fundamental radical changes" proposed in the bill.

The loss of legal representation at a time when "emotions are raw and passions at their highest" could increase the chance of "bloody battles" in court.

Chairman of the families law section of the New Zealand Law Society Garry Collin said many vulnerable people could feel "daunted and uncomfortable" accessing the court under the proposed system. "People who are left scared at the early stages of court will walk away and the children will suffer."

The Family Court Proceedings Reform Bill was introduced in the House in December and public submissions close on February 13.

CHANGE AND EFFECT

Anyone who wants to access the court will need to pay $897 and go through a new Family Disputes Resolution Service. There will be restricted legal representation for parents, meaning they will need to fill out their own legal forms and represent themselves at pre-hearing court matters.

There will be restricted legal representation for children. The number of free counselling sessions are to be slashed from six to one. Community law centres fear they will be flooded with families seeking legal guidance. The changes could set up barriers and discourage people from accessing the court. Women's welfare agencies are concerned the changes could lead to an increase in domestic violence.

The Government says the reforms will create a more modern, efficient and effective Family Court system. The Government has estimated about 1200 families a year will no longer go to court under the new system.

- The Press

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