Bringing Family Court out of the shadows

SHANE COWLISHAW
Last updated 05:00 08/11/2012
Outgoing Principal Family Court Judge Peter Boshier
CHRIS SKELTON/Fairfax NZ
HARD DECISIONS: "I would never like there to be an impression that we do these things without a lot of churn in our minds, a lot of soul-searching and sometimes a lot of reflection,’" says outgoing Principal Family Court Judge Peter Boshier

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In 2004, the controversial Family Court was going through a rough patch.

Nelson MP Nick Smith had become the first MP to be convicted of contempt of court after publicly accusing it of robbing a couple of their child.

Men's rights groups were also incensed, complaining the mysterious court favoured women and unfairly separated fathers from their children.

At the time, the man who had stepped into the principal Family Court judge's shoes was unable to answer the criticism.

Judge Peter Boshier, 60, had inherited a court that, by law, was bound by secrecy.

But during his tenure, he worked steadily to open up the court with an aim to demystify what really went on behind the closed doors.

Now, more than eight years later, Judge Boshier will leave the Family Court to take up a position at the Law Commission.

Looking back at that first year, the softly spoken judge said he realised very quickly that he needed to make the court more open to media so the public could hear the full story.

"I'd only just started when in Auckland there was a particularly unkind editorial about the Family Court and its secrecy and because the court couldn't publicly say what went on in relation to cases it was a pretty tough time.

"I think that the Nick Smith prosecution really highlighted the fact we were in an impossible position because we had been attacked for decisions we had made, but couldn't publish those decisions and I realised we needed to deal with it very robustly."

After making moves to open up the court, a high-profile case in 2007 shone the spotlight once more on the issue.

When Hamilton boy Jayden Headley was abducted during a custody battle, Judge Boshier was again faced with the decision on what information to reveal.

After a lot of deliberation he decided to release the entire decision, including identifying details, citing it as the "turning point" in the Family Court's credibility.

Alongside the openness of the court, Judge Boshier also picks out the increased rights of children during proceedings and an early-intervention system aimed at speeding up cases as initiatives he is most pleased with.

He is also proud of his Family Court judges, who face some of the most horrific decisions in the court system.

As an example, Judge Boshier talks about a case he presided over involving a 14-year-old Napier boy.

His parents had separated and he had a good relationship with his father, until his mother made sexual abuse allegations.

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After the father was found not guilty, the custody issue arrived in the Family Court, where Judge Boshier discovered the mother had turned the boy against his father and was sabotaging any attempts to come to a compromise.

"I had to decide if I would force the boy to see the father . . . you know, I have to tell you, my heart was in my hands over that because I decided I had no choice but to take the boy off the mother and give [custody] to the father.

"When I did it I knew it was risky but this is what judges have to do."

The decision was a good one, with the boy flourishing under the care of his father.

"They're hard decisions and I would never like there to be an impression that we do these things without a lot of churn in our minds, a lot of soul-searching and sometimes a lot of reflection."

The Family Court Reform Bill, set to be introduced to Parliament before the end of the year, proposes some of the biggest changes in the court's 30-year history. It will introduce a mediation service, staffed by private organisations, that parties have to participate in before heading to the court.

With an aim of curbing the Family Court's ballooning costs, it will also streamline the court into three tracks and axe automatic access to pre-court free counselling.

Judge Boshier had no comment on the bill, saying the judiciary must keep out of law-making.

But as he turned to a new challenge, he hoped any changes would help improve society.

"I see parents in family disputes and I can't understand their actions, I cannot understand their conduct. I cannot believe they do the things they do and not have the insight on how it's affecting their children and therefore future generations."

'I WAS NEVER ASKED TO LEAVE'

Judge Peter Boshier has rejected suggestions he tried to hang on to his job after being asked to step down.

A law passed in 2004 restricts the principal family court judge to an eight-year term, which expired for Judge Boshier in March.

When that date arrived, media reports suggested he would challenge any attempt to remove him because he had been appointed a short time before the restriction came into place.

But speaking to The Dominion Post yesterday, Judge Boshier wanted to clear up the speculation about his departure.

Although he fell outside the legislation, when he took the job in 2004 he had an agreement with the attorney-general at the time, Margaret Wilson, to do eight years, he said.

In February, he approached the Government about leaving but the process about where he would move to was not completed until July. When the media speculation surfaced, Judge Boshier said, he wanted to make a public statement but a no-response strategy was "decided by others".

"It was left hanging, this unanswered question, as to whether I'd been asked to leave.

"I was never asked to leave; it was me that initiated the departure. Why did I do it, was it to stick around deliberately?

"It wasn't. It was because I felt that once the Government had said we will appoint you to the Law Commission and you can do it quickly, in my heart I felt I had to have an exit with the bench that was orderly and which left them with the feeling that I wasn't just suddenly walking out amidst a period of huge change within the Family Court . . .

"While I'm sad to go, because I've really liked this job and its challenges . . . I think you have to close a book and move on to the next one and I do believe in that, I don't think to outstay your welcome is advisable."

STEPPING UP

Judge Laurence John Ryan will replace Judge Boshier as interim chief Family Court judge.

Admitted to the bar in 1973, Judge Ryan became a barrister sole in 1988, specialising in family law.

He was appointed to the District Court bench in 1996 with a Family Court warrant and Youth Court designation.

After serving as administrative Family Court judge for the northern region, he has become principal Family Court judge.

When the Domestic Violence Act was introduced, he established a case-flow management practice for protection order applications that was adopted by the courts.

While he is initially an interim replacement, it is possible his position will be made permanent.

- The Dominion Post

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