A Nelson-based family lawyer, says delays of up to a year in the court system create further problems for separated parents of children who already have a fractured relationship.
Michelle Duggan is the chairperson of the New Zealand Law Society Family Law Section.
She says the 2014 law changes to the Family Court which were supposed to result in the Courts being less congested have not delivered on that promise at all.
Citing an example of the snail pace the Family Court moves at, Ms Duggan says there was a situation in March this year in relation to custody of a boy aged under 10 and two separated parents, which won’t see the light of day in a court room until next year.
“The mother of the child obtained a protection and parenting order on 29 March meaning there can’t be any contact between the parents, and also supervised contact when the father of the child spends time with him."
Ms Duggan says in April the man filed his response to the order disputing allegations made against him as that order was granted by the Court.
“There’s been no movement since. We have made some progress through negotiations between the parents which has been enormously frustrating, for them and both lawyers,” she says.
Ultimately the mother of the child involved gets to make the call on the care and contact arrangements.
“And she wasn’t prepared to agree to unsupervised contact and longer periods of care in relation to their child,” she says.
The crux of the matter was in resolving the protection order because a determination needs to be made by the court in relation to the allegations made against the father of the child.
A hearing was set down for 28 April to set a fixture day; however, six months have now passed and no date has been set to deal with the issue.
“What that means is that unless a whole lot of allocated hearings get resolved and this gets called up at short notice, it will not be get a hearing until at least February 2017,” she says.
That is nearly one year after the custody issue was raised.
Meanwhile the father of the child still has limited contact although an agreement has now been made for unsupervised visits. But the times and frequencies of visits are essentially left up to the mother of the child to organise.
“It doesn’t allow people to get on with their lives because you still have a huge question mark over what the final arrangements will be and you also have a steadily building mutual resentment between the separated parents,” she says.
She says the father of the child will be annoyed that the mother holds all the power, and the mother of the child will be equally annoyed the father can’t accept the situation because the court hasn’t yet allocated a hearing for the issue.
“Mum will be resenting the fact that Dad is forever asking for more contact and I can see and understand the perspective from both of them,” she says.
Ms Duggan says if a hearing had been held in a fair time frame they would have both had certainty going forward with a parenting order explaining how custody will work.
“Neither of them might like what the Court decides, as that is always the risk with litigation but at least it would have been written down and not constantly negotiated and there would be less likelihood of a resentful situation where one parents feels as if the other parent holds all the power.
"As it currently stands this separated couple will have to negotiate Christmas and also school holiday contact. I’m not in any way critical of our Courts but I am frustrated that there isn’t enough hearing time for these sorts of serious matters to be resolved, as what has happened because of these delays is that the parents have actually become less cooperative and yet they have umpteen years of parenting left ahead of them,” she says
Michelle Duggan says this real life example is just one of many that are occurring in the Family Court throughout the country, and that it is a standard situation for separated parents to endure.
“It is deeply unfair on the child too who obviously didn’t ask for any of this,” she says.