OPINION: Perhaps the legal fraternity thought that, with the unexpected departure of former justice minister Simon Power from the political scene last year, some of the many reforms he instigated might vanish or at least be relitigated. So far, no such luck.
His influence has resurfaced with news that some wanting to use the services of the Family Court will, from July 1, have to have some skin in the game. In other words, they will then have to dip into their pockets for hearings that now cost those involved little more than lawyers' fees, or nothing at all if they have been granted legal aid.
Some practitioners, as well as Labour and the Greens, are bleating that children whose parents are caught up in Family Court proceedings will be affected. That might be true, but probably for the better. Mr Power believed that if warring parents had to pull out their wallets before embarking on yet another family-relating hearing, they might try to sort out the issues that divide them without involving judges and their retinues. Nonetheless, a fee-waiver regime will remain to ensure those of limited means still have access to the court.
The fees, the introduction of which brings the Family Court into line with similar jurisdictions in Australia and England and other New Zealand civil courts, are part of a wide-ranging review of Family Court work. Submissions on it closed in February.
Some detractors say its recommendations should have been made public before fees were imposed. A Government hungry for revenue, however, was apparently unprepared to allow such a luxury. It was probably persuaded by figures showing that, although Family Court costs rose by 63 per cent between 2004 and 2009, little evidence existed that cases were dealt with more quickly or that repeat applications fell away.
The Government's review discussion paper also argues that although the state has a clear role in protecting children and vulnerable adults, its role in resolving what are private parenting squabbles should be reduced. It says, "The court should promote children's welfare, not parents' rights". Neither the Greens nor Labour can fault that, surely? The discussion paper considers, too, whether Domestic Violence Act matters should properly become the preserve of the Domestic Violence Courts, and asks whether opening Family Court hearings to greater public scrutiny might make the courts more transparent and the parties more accountable for what is said in court.
Chief Family Court judge Peter Boshier notes the trivial matters that, under present arrangements, reach the bench time and again. "Answers are sought from judges", he says, "on everything from choice of school to choice of surnames". Thus, the new fee regime is the least of Family Court issues that should worry Opposition MPs and family lawyers. If its processes are being abused, the family law community has a responsibility not only to ensure that taxpayers get value for the millions they invest in this branch of law, but also that children, not their parents, are front and centre in the process. A Family Court hearing should surely be a last resort.
- The Dominion Post