Family Court reform worries lawyers

Changes to the Family Court could have an impact on access to justice and also mean less work and less pay for some Southland lawyers, an Invercargill lawyer says.

A government reform and the most significant changes to the Family Court since it was established 33 years ago will come into force on Monday.

Justice Minister Judith Collins said a 2011 review of the Family Court confirmed too many people were unnecessarily going to court and cases were taking too long to resolve.

The reform meant people could resolve parenting matters outside court and minimise the stress children faced when their parents separated, she said.

Invercargill lawyer Kate McHugh, who practises in family law, said the changes would put responsibility on the people involved to sort out matters themselves.

While she was unsure of the long-term implications for Southland lawyers, initially it could mean less work and fewer court hearings, she said.

The aim was for parties to resolve matters outside the courtroom, which could result in less work for lawyers, she said.

"A consequence of the reform is that there just isn't a place for legal representation [in the Family Court]. Only in limited circumstances."

Before the reform, parties could approach lawyers straight away and lawyers could prepare and file Family Court proceedings, she said.

But under the new process parties need to first complete a parenting information programme and then a family disputes resolution, which was similar to mediation.

Southland lawyers could then give pre-court advice or assistance, tell parties about the process and show them the forms and what their obligations were but with a strict legal aid funding of $245 plus GST, Ms McHugh said.

Ms McHugh said she was unsure the reform would achieve its objective but she believed it would impact access to justice in the Family Court jurisdiction.

But it was "very, very early days" and she would not know the true implications of it until it was under way.

Urgent matters involving children's safety or domestic violence would still go straight to Family Court and be dealt with by lawyers, she said.

The Southland Times