Comments made by Principal Family Court Judge Laurence Ryan about questions being posed by The Backbone Collective group are absolutely appropriate, New Zealand Law Society Family Law Section chair Michelle Duggan says.
“It is very disappointing that what is an important and sincere project aimed at confronting violence against women has become diverted into a series of erroneous allegations about the integrity of the Family Court, its judges and lawyers,” she says.
“The Law Society does not in any way condone violence against women. We fully agree with the Backbone Collective that women who have survived violence and believe the Family Court processes could be changed to better address their situation should be heard.
“Rather than conduct a debate through the media, a more appropriate forum for a discussion about family violence is by making a submission to Parliament’s Justice and Electoral Committee on the Family and Whānau Violence Legislation Bill.”
She says the Collective survey is unscientific and presents participants with already-made value judgements which are totally unfair in the way they depict the Family Court judiciary and lawyers.
“Many ‘questions’ are not in fact questions; they are statements which make assumptions and then ask respondents to agree. Any resulting report will have little credibility.
“Contrary to the Collective’s view, it also cannot be said that the Family Court is secret and free from scrutiny. Family Court decisions are available online and the parties can always appeal to the High Court. The media can report on Family Court cases.”
“It is also not correct to say that Lawyers for the Child are failing to keep children safe. The Lawyer for Child does not have a decision-making role – rather, the role of Lawyer for Child is to promote the welfare and best interests of the children and to ensure that, if expressed, a child’s views are put before the Court.”
Ms Duggan says the Law Society has advocated for the need for change in the Family Court processes and the problems with legal aid and access to legal representation.
“We will continue to do so. Many of the changes to the Family Court are not changes that we support and we have continued to provide feedback to the Ministry of Justice in relation to our concerns, particularly around representation and access to counselling and mediation. That said, we are totally supportive of the integrity of the judges of the Family Court.
“Like everyone, Judges are not infallible, but they are highly skilled professionals who are obliged by the Care of Children Act to take account of domestic violence and to always ensure the safety of children from all forms of violence.
“Family Court judges are called on to make tough decisions that are often viewed as unsatisfactory, unfair or unjust by all the parties to the proceeding. It is not possible to please all parties when they are pitted against each other and pleasing parties is not the role of the Court.
“The Court’s role is to make decisions based on the evidence placed before it, on parenting arrangement that protect the safety of a child and put that child’s best interests first. The Family Court process is a fraught and combative process and often there are no ‘winners’ – just exhausted participants. Our Family Court judges work in that environment and New Zealanders are well-served by them.”