Family Court: we thought Labour had the answers in 2014 but it now wants more advice

Justice Minister Andrew Little today welcomed the release of a public consultation paper by the Independent Panel considering the 2014 family justice reforms.  So should we all.

The panel is calling for public submissions, inviting everyone with experience of the family justice system to share their stories and have their say about how family justice services can be improved.

Among the changes introduced by Judith Collins as Justice Minister in 2014, mediation was required before parents could apply to the Family Court and lawyers were removed from the early stages of some court proceedings.

The aim was to help people resolve parenting disputes without having to go to court.

She said she expected the caseload would reduce significantly.

“Around 40 per cent is the estimate that Justice has given me of the cases that will be able to be resolved through mediation,” she says.

But Little – who then predicted the changes would not work for some people – implicitly acknowledged he does not know now how to fix things when he asked the Independent Panel to examine the changes and consider how they have impacted on separating families and their children.

He announced the terms of reference for the panel on August 1 and has asked it to report back to him by May next year.

This is yet another inquiry being conducted by the Labour-led Government after it sat in opposition for nine years thinking about what should be done.

But we can’t complain.

Before the last election Labour said National’s reforms to the Family Court have failed – causing significant disparities and delays for families and children, and reducing access to mediation and other alternative dispute mechanisms.

It seemed to know what was going on:

“An astounding 86 % of cases are now made on an urgent ‘without notice’ basis, so that families can avoid massive delays and secure legal representation. And a two-tiered system where families with money can access a lawyer but others cannot has developed.

“Public confidence in the Family Court process has taken a hit”

But it also said the reforms needed to be urgently reviewed before being replaced.

According to the election manifesto, Labour would

  • Review and replace the Family Court reforms
  • Allow parties to family disputes to choose to be represented by lawyers at all stages in the proceeding
  • Ensure efficient Court Registries provide prompt hearing dates for cases so the disputes can be resolved and families can move on from disputes
  • Protect children by allowing Judges to obtain expert reports when they will assist in determining a matter (not being essential as is currently required).

Back in 2014, it seemed Labour already had the answers.

On August 30 that year, Little posted a policy plank under the heading Labour: A smarter approach to justice.

A Labour Government will improve the justice system to ensure it achieves real public safety, provides equal access to justice and protects human rights, Labour’s Justice spokesperson Andrew Little says.

And among its commitments, Labour would –

  • Ensure parties to disputes in the Family Court have access to legal advice throughout the process.

More than three years later, we are told:

“We can’t fix a broken system without knowing the extent of the problem so I’m pleased the Panel is seeking public input.

“The consultation process is an invaluable opportunity for the Panel to understand how the family justice system can provide a better service.

“Wide public engagement will allow the Panel to get the full picture when it comes to the reforms’ effectiveness.”

We can’t wait.

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