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Law Society says group’s attack on the Family Court system is misguided

18 May 2017 - By Craig Stephen

The New Zealand Law Society says the language adopted by the Backbone Collective comments in a press release criticising the Family Court system is at best unwise.  

The Backbone Collective has issued a statement headlined “Women from Backbone are appalled at lack of accountability in Family Court system. Those in charge of The Family Court refuse to listen to women.”

The Collective is an independent body that aims to take action to change NZ’s alarming violence against-women statistics by using the experience of women who have experienced violence and abuse.

In early April Backbone released a report All Eyes on the Family Court - using the experiences of 10 victims to highlight issues women were raising in the Family Court.

It outlined 15 themes identified by those members as ways in which the Family Court was putting women and their children who had experienced violence and abuse in more danger.

“In essence, those themes raised concerns that when women go to the Family Court seeking protection from a violent or abusive partner they are placed in much more danger by the Family Court itself through its practices, processes and decision-making,” the statement released on Wednesday notes.

The All Eyes on the Family Court report was given to the Principal Family Court Judge, the Minister for Justice, Amy Adams, and the Law Society.

Ms Adams wrote to the Collective saying she was "not satisfied that allegations of bias on the basis of anecdotal evidence prove systematic bias in the Family Court".

The top Family Court judge, Laurence Ryan, and the Law Society also said the report was unfair and flawed.

Backbone co-founder Deborah Mackenzie criticised Ms Adams’ letter, referring to their own survey of 600 women.

“The women are telling us their experiences of violence and abuse are shut down, minimised and not believed by the Family Court – for example over 50% of the women who participated in our survey said that the violence and abuse was minimised and told it was at the lower end of the scale, 30% said the violence and abuse was excluded from the evidence by the judge.

“These practices mirror the abusive behaviour the women have sought protection from.”

The Collective says feedback posted on its Facebook page has been critical of Ms Adams’ letter.

“There is a huge difference between disagreeing with or being disappointed by a decision made by a judge around factual matters and calling the legal system “corrupt” which is what one of the comments says,” New Zealand Law Society Family Law Society chair Michelle Duggan says.

“Like all court systems our Family Court system is not perfect and parties to proceedings will often be upset or angry when they don’t get the result that they hoped for but that is an inherent risk of Court proceedings and not getting the result you hoped for does not make the system “corrupt” or a “bully”.  This sort of statement is at best unhelpful and, at worst, misguided.

“It is, of course, essential that judges understand the dynamics of domestic violence but ultimately judges have to follow the law.  In terms of the law, the best thing to focus on right now would be improving and changing the law and that is why making submissions on the Family and Whanau Violence Bill are critical.”

Last month the Law Society backed the comments by Judge Laurence Ryan in his response to the Collective’s claims.

Last updated on the 18th May 2017