After more than 40 years working in the Family Courts in the Auckland area Judge John Adams had his final sitting in Manukau on Friday 13 February.
He retired not because he was “grumpy with the court” but to pursue a career in creative writing. But that’s not to say Judge Adams doesn’t have his issues with the Family Court changes, he says.
He deplores the reduction of legal representation in the process, for example.
“Depriving people of legal representation at an early stage of a case is misguided because that is the very time where you need a professional to shape yourself before going to court. In my experience when people have been represented by lawyers, their appearance in court is more business-like, productive and shorter.
“The vast majority of people don’t know the law. They’re like sheep, running around and when they hear a dog bark they bang into a fence.
“Now, judges are obliged to deal with the raw material with the breakdown of the relationship, and there are misconceptions by people before the court about their rights. It’s now a shop-front kind of situation.
“Imagine a scheme to streamline a brain surgery unit where brain surgeons were posted to reception duties for a part of each week. That wouldn’t be a good use of their skills and likewise the current Family Court system isn’t a good use of judges’ skills.”
Although he does favour judicial triaging of cases, in his view that process would be much more effective if parties had lawyers. If so, the process of triage would be informed by generally better material than is the current position.
The administrative problems around managing high volumes of urgent cases have meant courts are overloaded and where once his own Waitakare Court ran like a dream, the new centralised system is now “ineffective and grubby”, he says.
In his experience the new forms are cumbersome and difficult for the judge to follow, he says.
They are designed to ensure a lay litigant gives all relevant information but little attention has been accorded to the end-user, the judge.
“What used to be set out in three to five pages sprawls in scraps across a very long document. This makes it hard in court but where a judge is dealing with applications without notice, generally on the computer, readability is highly significant. It takes a lot of effort to mentally repackage the material so the relevant narrative is understood. And lawyers, who are well able to write logical material, are obliged to chop their cases into the particles required by the form. The tail (of documentation) is wagging the dog uncomfortably.”
But Judge Adams is an advocate of the urgent classification system, he says.
“Why would you take a route that takes five or six months to get to court, which could be financially and emotionally burdensome and ultimately at the expense of the children? In my view what the Family Court does in urgent cases is more important socially than carefully reasoned solemn cases over two-year periods.
“The situation is fairly dire. If one parent takes control of the kids it’s uncivilised for the other to go wading into their partner’s house and drag them up the road. But in the real world one person will take the lead. There’s nothing fair and balanced about it.
“What we need is for litigants to come to court in a meaningful way and this is not happening.”