Papers reveal costly chaos of Family Courts

Last updated 05:00 02/12/2012

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Ministry of Justice staff insisted everything was fine and morale was high within the Family Court in Auckland, even as judges and lawyers described a system in chaos, official papers show.

The Sunday Star-Times revealed in August how a new centralised processing system for the courts in Auckland had led to serious delays and huge backlogs within the Family Court, with the Law Society warning it was only a matter of time before someone was seriously hurst, or worse.

Cases involving domestic violence and at-risk children were taking weeks, or even months, to even be allocated hearing dates.

The Law Society said it believed the ministry wanted to roll out the new system, known as the Auckland Service Delivery Programme, nationwide, which would be a disaster.

Justice secretary Andrew Bridgman apologised in Parliament on Thursday, admitting staff were not fully prepared for the changes and the ministry did not engage with the legal profession early or actively enough.

Bridgman said it was the Justice Ministry's "biggest challenge of the year".

The ministry has now released documents to the Star-Times under the Official Information Act, including a breakdown of costs for fixing the problem.

The ministry provided 19 temporary staff, and rostered between four and five court staff from other regions to assist. The cost of the temporary staff was $283,552 from March 1 to August 31. A further $226,240 was paid in overtime costs and $43,981 in travel costs.

The papers also include two letters from Principal Family Court Judge Peter Boshier, who wrote to the ministry in May to express the "considerable disquiet" among judges at the new system.

"The judges have asked me to take firm control of what is regarded as an unacceptable delivery of family justice in Auckland," he wrote.

He catalogued two pages of concerns, including no ownership of files, disorganised court lists, delays of up to six months for judicial conferences and decisions not being released quickly enough.

He noted that staff morale was affecting service delivery.

Three months later Boshier wrote to the ministry again, saying judges still regarded the system, particularly as it pertained to the Manukau court, as unsatisfactory and unacceptable.

"It becomes very difficult for me to manage a very busy court effectively when management systems are so poor," he wrote.

"It seems that goodwill from court users towards the Ministry of Justice and its staff has been exhausted . . . and I believe judges may be at a similar position."

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Boshier provided further case studies where delays of months had occurred. These included custody proceedings involving Child, Youth and Family.

One judge had noted that at a meeting at Manukau, ministry staff spoke of "high staff morale" but the judges and lawyers present at the meeting said this was not true and that registry staff were not even answering phone calls or emails.

Another judge commented that "it is difficult at the moment as the ministry is sticking firmly to the line that everything is fine . . . it is clear that this is not the case".

Tony Fisher, the general manager of district courts, disputed that the new centralised system was entirely to blame for the problems.

He told the Star-Times: "We acknowledge there have been problems, but . . . some of these pre-date the implementation of the model. This shows that many of the problems are unrelated to the way we have organised ourselves to work across Auckland in the family and civil jurisdictions and result in part from the volume of work done, the complexity of cases and the emotion around the Family Court."

He said the system was now working, with family applications reduced from over 10,000 at the end of June to 8796 at the end of October.

Gary Collin, chair of the Law Society's family section, said while the system had improved significantly, that was only because of the huge resources poured in, and it did not change the fact it was a flawed model.

"Whether they will continue to fund this in a time of austerity is something we have real concerns about," he said.

- Sunday Star Times

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