The Government’s family justice reforms are the most significant change to the system since the establishment of the Family Court 33 years ago. It has been a huge job for the Ministry of Justice to get ready for these changes with new processes, systems, training and information.
You all know the reasons for these changes. The reforms give more options for parents to resolve disputes about the care of their children without resorting to adversarial court proceedings, minimising the stress children face when their parents separate. They are designed to encourage mediation and out-of-court settlements and place the needs of children and vulnerable people at the centre of people’s thinking.
They also allow the Family Court to focus on those areas where the expertise of judges and lawyers is needed. Generally, the reforms move the focus of family justice away from the court to a system where it is reserved for serious cases, especially those involving domestic violence, and to resolve more intractable disputes.
So our task has been – along with many others, including the legal profession – to put in place a completely new regime. For three years, delivering a new family justice system has been a key focus for the ministry. In April 2011 we began the review of the Family Court and with Parliament passing the legislation in September last year, we’ve been busy building new systems to support the wider family justice system. This has included developing the new Family Court Rules to enable these changes, which were promulgated by Order in Council in January.
To enable parents to resolve disputes about the care of their children out-of-court we have had to establish a new Family Dispute Resolution Service. As Secretary for Justice, I have approved the Law Society as one of three organisations responsible for appointing individuals as FDR providers. It has also required us to develop new contracts, operating guidelines and new IT systems to allow us and the court to be connected with out-of-court service providers.
To support these out-of-court processes, we’ve expanded the Parenting Through Separation (PTS) courses so everyone can make use of this successful programme free of charge. We’ve also created a new Family Legal Advice Service and almost 600 lawyers have contracted to deliver it. We have formally consulted the profession on this service.
A new website has been created for the whole of the family justice system. Along with a new 0800 helpline, the website will be one of the entry point options for those who work in and need to use the family justice system. It is packed with information along with new and revised court forms for care of child matters.
With all this change, we’ve also been busy with training and engaging with those who will make the system work. At the end of last year, seminars were held in 14 centres to talk to judges, lawyers and providers. This year, through February and March, we’ve supported training for judges, about 100 family court staff and 45 call centre staff, hundreds of family legal assistance lawyers, and 60 PTS providers as well as FDR mediators. Beginning in late March there will be a public education campaign on radio, sites and magazines to inform the community about the changes and to direct people to the family justice website. And we’ve distributed factsheets to citizen’s advice bureaux, community law centres and MPs’ offices.
A lot of the talk is, understandably, about change but some processes aren’t changing at all. Lawyers will still play a crucial role in this new system. They will be central to delivering the family legal assistance service, providing separating couples with legal advice on their rights and responsibilities and assisting to complete forms if they need to go to court. For those parents and couples who meet the criteria, this service will be government-funded. Many lawyers also work as professional mediators and will play a role in the family dispute resolution.
Lawyers will also continue to play an important role in proceedings before the Family Court. Where a judge directs that parties at a settlement conference need to be legally represented, they can apply for legal aid. Likewise, if a dispute between the couples gets to a formal hearing, both parties are entitled to legal representation and can apply for legal aid. In urgent cases, such as those involving domestic violence, which continue to go straight to the court, legal representation remains available.
We have invested heavily in making the new family justice system will work well. Ensuring it delivers to the people who need it requires the support of everyone working in family justice. We recognise that, despite our very best endeavours, there may be some glitches. We have a team monitoring the implementation and if you experience problems, let us know, and we’ll sort it out. We want to ensure this system works well, because, like you, we want the best for New Zealand families and children.
Andrew Bridgman is the Secretary for Justice.