Law Society broadside at Family Court chaos

JUDITH COLLINS: Justice Minister.
JUDITH COLLINS: Justice Minister.

The Law Society has attacked a "shambolic" new system for processing Family Court cases in Auckland, saying it is only a matter of time before someone dies.

The society has been meeting with the ministry to sort out the new centralised system, which it says has caused backlogs and huge delays in cases involving at-risk children and domestic violence.

It believes the ministry wants to roll it out nationwide.

"It is only a matter of time before someone is injured, or worse, as a consequence of court proceedings not being dealt with, or orders not being issued," society family law section chairman Garry Collin said.

Principal Family Court Judge Peter Boshier has written to the ministry with his "continuing concern" about the system, and asked for a meeting with Justice Minister Judith Collins.

A nationwide rollout would be a disaster, Collin says. "The model is fundamentally flawed."

Courts Minister Chester Borrows, said he had told the ministry to work with staff, lawyers and judges to address the problems urgently, and was expecting a briefing early this week. "After many years working in the sector I'm aware of the risks posed by delays. The situation is simply not good enough."

Since February's changes, Family Court files have been handled by processing centres in Auckland and Manukau. That means cases dealt with in outlying courts, like Papakura and the North Shore, are now processed in central "hubs".

The model was supposed to make the system more efficient, but lawyers say it is chaotic, 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.

It is understood at one point there were 3500 unopened mail items, and that case officers have been dealing with up to 300 files.

The ministry responded by spending $232,356 on 19 temporary staff to help clear backlogs, and rostering five staff from other parts of the country to help. Overtime and accommodation bills have pushed the blowout cost close to $1 million.

The ministry has admitted mistakes in implementing the system, but courts deputy secretary Robert Pigou said claims lives were being put at risk were "alarmist". While the ministry was "not happy", the problems were about implementation and it had a "robust" system for dealing with urgent applications so that they were dealt with within 24 hours.

But the society has provided the Star-Times with dozens of examples of delays and problems, including:

No paperwork issued for a woman granted a protection order. The subject of the order videoed her at her apartment but police were unable to arrest him.

Service documents for an interim parenting order were issued from the wrong court with the wrong names. It took more than two months to correct it.

A terminally ill woman had to wait several months for orders to be made in a straightforward property case, after files were lost.

A mother was denied access to her children for several weeks because her case "ground to a halt" in the Manukau court.

In a Papakura child custody case, the court refused to accept documents because the father was not named as a respondent. He was dead.

An application for appointment of a welfare guardian for a mentally incompetent person took five months, by which time the person was dead.

Collin said it did not augur well for other major Family Court changes later this year.


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Sunday Star Times