New Zealand Law Society - Family arrangements and domestic violence during the crisis

Family arrangements and domestic violence during the crisis

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The COVID-19 crisis and the State of Emergency have upturned all aspects of life, and no less around families.

Government advice is to stay at home unless to go to the supermarket, visit a pharmacy or medical centre, and for walks/runs/cycle rides in your neighbourhood. But for those parents who have shared access to their children, that can mean pre-arranged agreements go out the door.

Initially, the advice was that such travel was to be within the same town or city.

Principal Family Court Judge Jacquelyn Moran, offers the following guidance:

"Where there is a shared care arrangement and the families are in different towns or communities, the safety of the children and others in their family units should not be compromised by movement between those homes, particularly if there are more than two homes involved.

"Generally, children in the same communities can continue to go between their homes, unless:

  • the child is unwell. In this case the child should not travel between homes until they are well.
  • someone in either home is unwell.
  • someone involved (ie, the child or people in the home they have been in or will go to) has been overseas in the last 14 days, OR has been in close contact with someone who is currently being tested for Covid-19 OR has been in close contact with someone who has the virus or is being tested.

"Parents and caregivers should discuss if shared custody arrangements would allow COVID-19 to potentially spread without them being aware and reach an agreement. This may mean the child may stay with one parent/caregiver for the initial 4 week period.

"If children are moving:

  • Children should be accompanied by an adult when moving between homes.
  • Private vehicles should be used, where possible. Public transport can be used where there are no alternatives.

"Where children cannot move between homes, the Court would expect indirect contact - such as by phone or social media messaging - to be generous.

Judge Moran says parents must put aside their conflict at this time and make decisions that are in the best interests of the child and their families and the wider community.

"This global pandemic should not be seen as an opportunity for parents to unilaterally change established care arrangements without cause or otherwise behave in a manner inconsistent with the child’s best interests or the court ordered care arrangements."

For up to date information, families are referred to the Unite against COVID-19 website.

Judge Moran emphasises that children are precious and that, more than ever, this is a time to focus on their wellbeing, and in particular their safety. It is important that their loved ones are also safe and well, and that children know that, and are able to see their parents and caregivers lead by example.

Priority proceedings only

The Ministry of Justice website notes that the Family Court will be operating for priority proceedings only, such as to make urgent changes to parenting orders. “Most of these urgent matters can be dealt with by your lawyer and the Judge over the phone or electronically, and you will not need to come to court unless the court or your lawyer asks you to,” the ministry says.

Priority proceedings for the Family Court during Alert Level 4 will include:

  • Those with statutory timeframes such as applications for Compulsory Treatment Orders, IDCCR, Protection Orders or interim custody/care and protection orders,
  • Those involving vulnerable parties such as welfare guardianship or property orders under the Protection of Personal and Property Rights Act,
  • Those arising out of social dysfunction and family harm.

Family violence proceedings, including without notice applications for protection orders and urgent variations to parenting orders, will be a priority for the courts.

Filing fees for applications for a variation to an order have been waived during COVID-19 alert level 4.

Compliance with Level 4 isolation rules will be managed by the Ministry of Health, and the Police as necessary.  Parents can make an urgent application to the Family Court for amendment to a parenting order in the normal way.

Legal aid will still be available.

The Family Court will consider urgent cases but only if they are genuinely urgent. People can make an urgent application to the court in the normal way during the COVID-19 alert period and judges are on hand to deal with this remotely.

Domestic violence incidents during the lockdown

As with the festive season, it is anticipated that there will be a rise in domestic violence during the COVID-19 lockdown as an unintended consequence of families being kept home, or the stress of unemployment or under-employment taking its toll.

As a consequence, the Government announced last week that it would give $27 million to social service providers like the Salvation Army and Women's Refuge to help the vulnerable during this time.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the money would allow these organisations to keep housing, feeding and sheltering people from domestic violence.

Women’s Refuge Chief Executive Dr Ang Jury says that although it’s clearly very necessary, self-isolating will likely mean an escalation of violence for many women.

“Isolating and social distancing can have unintended consequences for women who are living with the people abusing them. Isolation from wider family, friends, and colleagues is a well-known method abusers use to exercise control over victims. Increased isolation also means victims are unable to seek respite from their partners by getting out of the house and doing everyday things.”

The New Zealand Law Society's Family Law Section has an FAQ section about the COVID-19 emergency situation on its website.