Sweeping changes to the Family Court system will silence children, impose financial barriers on parents and lead to legal battles and a spike in domestic violence, welfare agencies and experts fear.
The suggested changes include a compulsory $900 family dispute service, fewer counselling sessions and restricted access to legal representation for parents and children.
The Government is proposing the changes to dilute the number of cases going before the court, whose costs ballooned to $142 million in 2010-11.
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 be subsidised for low-income earners.
Counselling sessions will also be slashed from six hours to one. If the parties cannot reach an agreement during FDR, the matter will then go to court, but lawyers will be appointed only when it reaches a full hearing. However, urgent cases involving abuse will be fast-tracked.
Experienced Christchurch family lawyer Erin Ebborn said she held grave concerns that many families would be "extremely vulnerable and left to go it alone". Restricted access to lawyers and the $897 FDR fee would become "daunting hurdles" to people needing help.
Women's Refuge said the proposed "barriers" could see families shy away from the system and attempt to deal with disputes themselves. "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," chief executive Nicola Woodward said.
Canterbury University associate law professor John Caldwell said New Zealand's Family Court system was internationally respected, and the changes could "throw the baby out with the bathwater".
There were issues with the court that needed to be addressed, but he did not believe they justified the "fundamental radical changes" proposed in the bill.
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.
- The Marlborough Express