Family Court changes raise concern

Last updated 10:33 15/03/2013

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Proposed changes to the Family Court have been slammed again, this time by the Children's Commissioner Russell Wills.

Legislation before a select committee aims to cut the cost of Family Court proceedings by reducing the services available, including free counselling and representation.

The changes would also introduce a compulsory mediation service that would cost couples more than $800 to use.

A group of Christchurch judges has already said the changes would lead to a rise in domestic violence.

Wills has added his weight to the concern.

He was particularly worried about the cost of the proposed Family Dispute Resolution (FDR) service, which will cost $877 to attend.

Some low-income families would be able to apply for legal aid to cover the fee, but Wills said it would fundamentally change the system, which now offers free counselling to warring couples.

"I am concerned that the proposed fees will result in parents who are having a relationship dispute being unable or unwilling to use FDR," he said in a submission to the justice select committee.

That would lead to unresolved, or poorly resolved, arguments, he said.

He was also concerned about the planned reduction in legal representation for children of parents involved in disputes.

Narrowing the criteria would save an estimated $13.1 million a year from the current $25.3m bill.

But Wills said it could also breach the Government's commitments under the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child.

"There is a likelihood that this amendment will lead to international criticism."

Northland lawyer Chris Perry yesterday delivered a petition to Parliament with more than 4740 signatures of people worried about the changes which he said were unfair and would mean low-income families missed out.

Green MP David Clendon agreed.

"If a family's arguing about the Beamer, the chihuahua and the family home, yeah, let them pay. But many won't be able to," he said.

But Justice Minister Judith Collins, speaking in defence of the changes in Parliament yesterday, said there was no evidence the changes would create domestic abuse.

They were based on expert advice, she said.

"Most of the cases that will come into the Family Court relating to care of children matters will be able to move through to mediation in the family dispute resolution process."

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