Most family justice professionals believe the system has been made worse by the 2014 reforms, a major Law Foundation-funded study has found.
The Otago University research found that around three-quarters of professionals, many of them lawyers, felt the system had become worse or much worse since 2014. More than 80% had become dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with working in the Family Court since the reforms.
The findings form part of a detailed three-year research project involving professionals and separated parents or caregivers on the family justice system and services it provides. The report, Parenting arrangements after separation study: Evaluating the 2014 family law reforms, has helped inform the findings of the Government’s Independent Panel reviewing the reforms. The Panel’s report to the Minister of Justice was released in mid-June.
Study co-author Nicki Taylor said the panel had appreciated being able to check what it was hearing in consultations and from submissions with the preliminary results of the Law Foundation research.
“Our findings complement what the panel has found through its work. They were really pleased to have independent research that provided an evidence base and confirmed their own impressions,” she says.
Professionals were very concerned about the massive increase in without-notice applications to the Family Court, following the 2014 changes which also removed lawyers from the early stages of all but urgent cases.
“Professionals are also hugely concerned about court delays – reducing delay was one of the key drivers of the 2014 reforms, but the delays have actually worsened since the reforms took effect,” Associate Professor Taylor says.
There is also concern about the lower than expected uptake of Family Dispute Resolution, the mediation service that helps parents agree on post-separation child care arrangements.
“Mediation works best when people are ready and well-informed enough to reach agreement on their children’s arrangements themselves,” she says.
Criticism of ending free counselling sessions
The removal of six free counselling sessions was also heavily criticised – these had provided early support to separated parents, tailored to their individual needs. The Family Law Advisory Service does provide initial legal advice and assistance with form completion for parents on low incomes, but most parents must now use an 0800 number and the Ministry of Justice website, which provide only generic information.
Survey respondents were especially critical of the 0800 service (0800 2Agree), with nearly two-thirds of professionals saying they would not recommend it to their clients. Complaints included lengthy waiting times and lack of knowledge. The website found more favour among respondents, though there were criticisms of its navigation and design, along with the quality and presentation of information.
“Many parents were unaware of the new services partly because there was no publicity when the reforms took effect,” Nicki Taylor says. “Parents told us they often didn’t know where to start in the system. Previously they could have accessed counselling, but they can’t do that now. Instead they are expected to go to the 0800 service or website, which people find too impersonal and generic.”
Parenting Through Separation shining light
Associate Professor Taylor says the free Parenting Through Separation information programme, which helps parents understand the effects of separation on their children, was “one shining light” that came through the evaluation. Most professionals recommend it to their clients, because it encourages parents to put children’s needs first and helps them deal amicably with their ex-partners.
“Our research was able to help understand which aspects of the family justice system were working well or not so well. People were critical of a ‘one size fits all’ approach prescribing too rigidly how separated parents can seek assistance to resolve their parenting arrangements. They wanted greater flexibility on the entry points and pathways available to them, rather than being directed through the pathway mandated by the 2014 reforms.”
The study was co-authored by Associate Professor Taylor and Dr Megan Gollop of the Children’s Issues Centre at the Otago Law Faculty, supported by Professor Mark Henaghan, formerly of Otago University, now at the Faculty of Law, University of Auckland. The research began in 2016 and involved online surveys and detailed interviews with hundreds of professionals and separated parents.
The Law Foundation also backed a preliminary Otago study in 2014-15 on initial scoping and planning for the subsequent nationwide study.
The interim report on the family justice professionals’ perspectives is available on the Law Foundation website under Publications/Legal Research Reports. Two further study reports on the parents’ perspectives will be available on the website in August 2019 and February 2020.
Lynda Hagen email@example.com is Executive Director of the New Zealand Law Foundation.