Four hundred and eighty-six people attended the two-day Family Law conference in Christchurch last week. Organised by NZLS CLE with a theme of connection, it was the first in-person conference for two years that lawyers from across the motu could attend and included a rich variety of presentations, break-out sessions and a 'Glitz and Glam' dinner and dance evening.
Family Law Section chair Lauren Pegg said those who attended relished the opportunity to connect with their colleagues in person.
“The event was a great opportunity to not only learn but also to really foster a sense of connection which is so necessary to everyone who is practising family law,” she said.
Your work matters
The conference was opened by Principal Family Court Judge Moran who told the audience that “your work matters."
“At the heart of it all is people and children and on behalf of the judiciary, I thank you for all you are doing,” she said in her opening remarks.
Judge Moran acknowledged that there have been significant challenges for everyone who works in the family courts.
“It’s been a hard few years in New Zealand,” she said. “The Family Court provides a snapshot of society and the issues facing people. People seldom come to the court for positive reasons.”
Judge Moran said the combination of a pandemic, national disasters, increasing family violence, addiction, mental health challenges and poverty meant that no one in the profession was immune from the real issues facing people.
Judge Moran expressed her firm commitment to addressing issues and improving the Family Court.
Judge Moran said her vision was about making changes in the broader context of family and whānauas she believes that early intervention can make a difference.
She spoke about the work underway to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the Family Court including work on:
a family violence model
a new digital case management system
new resources for whānau
the introduction of Family Court associates
change in the way the District Court operates to prevent children going into care
Family court navigators
and increased emphasis on children’s involvement in the court.
Through the eyes of the child
United States-based Board-certified forensic psychologist Dr Philip Stahl was the first keynote speaker. In his private practice, Dr Stahl provides consultation and expert witness testimony in child custody litigation throughout North America and Australia. He conducts workshops in the US and internationally for lawyers, parenting evaluators and others working with high-conflict families of divorce.
In his presentation, ‘Through the eyes of the child: the impact of high conflict divorce on children’, Dr Stahl used a video to highlight and discuss ways in which a family’s conflict results in trauma for their child and provide for navigating bias and the trauma behaviours that arise in high conflict cases. The session also addressed the impact of vicarious trauma on participants in the court system, including lawyers.
Understanding New Zealand’s story of inequity
Dr Hana O’Regan’s presentation was entitled ‘Kai Mua i te Kanohi Kitea, he Takata kē: Beyond the face that is seen, another person stands’.
Dr O’Regan told the conference that “we need to know and understand our story of inequity.”
“As a country, we’re told a story that we’re better than we are,” she said.
Dr O’Regan said there’s a myth about equity in New Zealand and that the idea that law treats everyone the same hasn’t been the reality.
“We need to understand how Māori have ended up in the position of having worst stats in areas such as health, poverty and crime,” she said.
Dr O’Regan said that most people don’t know the history of equity but that it was a disservice to continue to ignore it.
“We need to look at what we do with an equity lens and then put it into action,” she said. Dr O’Regan’s presentation received a standing ovation.
Tools to prevent compassion fatigue
In her presentation, From Empathy to Exhaustion: Science-informed tools to prevention compassion fatigue in family law practice, Dr Sarah Anticich, described lawyer well-being as a team sport.
She said social connectedness and daily intentional actions were both critical to buffer family lawyers from day-to-day work demands.
“Over time, the act of providing care in the context of human suffering and trauma wears down the individual’s psychological well-being,” she said.
Dr Anticich said that learning about compassion fatigue may be one of the most important things to do. Identifying intentional habits are also key. She emphasised that they only need to be 30 seconds a day.
“Be a human being before a human doing,” she said.
The Family Law Section extends its sincere thanks to conference chair Siobhan McNulty and all the family lawyers and expert speakers who gave such thorough and insightful presentations, and to NZLS CLE for organising such a hugely successful and informative event.