The Government has begun reform of the Family Court and says this will enable the court to respond effectively to the increased backlog caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
This omnibus bill will allow legal representation in all proceedings under the Care of Children Act 2004, and the provision of legal aid for eligible parties.
The Justice Minister Andrew Little has introduced the Family Court (Supporting Families in Court) Legislation Bill which forms part of a $62 million package designed to:
- Restore the right to legal representation at the start of a case in the Family Court;
- Allow parties to those proceedings, where eligible, to access legal aid;
- Establish Family Justice Liaison Officers and produce better information resources to help parents and whānau navigate the system;
- Increase remuneration for lawyers for children to incentivise the recruitment and retention of skilled practitioners.
Mr Little says it is expected that a second bill focused on strengthening the Family Court will follow later this year, which will:
- Enhance children’s participation in proceedings that affect them;
- Ensure that children feel supported and informed as they move through the Family Court process;
- Expand lawyers’ duties in care of children proceedings.
“We are committed to taking action to ensure New Zealanders have a Family Court that is safe for participants, sensitive to their needs, and where every party has their voice heard fairly and appropriately,” Mr Little says.
“Families and whānau who come before the Family Court are already at a particularly trying and stressful time in their lives, and Court can be a confusing and intimidating place for many who currently have to self-represent. We want families and whānau to be well-supported with early advice so issues can be fairly and expeditiously resolved,” Andrew Little said.
“The 2014 family justice reforms made by the previous National government simply haven’t worked. Instead we have seen a significant increase in the number of urgent ‘without notice’ applications made to the Family Court in order that parties can access the legal advice they need.
“National’s changes lengthened the backlog, but the need for reform is more important than ever with the Family Court under significant increased pressure due to COVID-19.
“Before the pandemic the Coalition Government appointed an Independent Panel to examine the effectiveness of those 2014 family justice reforms and recommend change.
“The bill introduced today to reinstate lawyers in the early stage of on-notice care of children proceedings is one of the key recommendations made by the Independent Panel. The bill will go a long way to helping resolve custody disputes and will significantly reduce the pressure on families and the court.”