Changes to family justice
In March there will be changes to how the Family Court works. The changes are designed to help families resolve their child arrangement matters outside of the Family Court, wherever possible. To support this existing services and resources are being improved and some new services are being introduced.
Summary of changes
The Family Court will still be there to protect children and vulnerable people; in these situations people will be able to apply directly to the court as they do now.
What’s changing is that the court will become a last resort when people can’t agree on care of children matters. This is because the court is now part of wider family justice system that puts more emphasis on people sorting out disputes about caring for children. More out of court services will be available to help them do this including parenting courses and dispute resolution.
The aim of the changes is to reduce the stress on children and families by avoiding the conflict, delays and expense going to court can involve. Research shows that children do better when they see their parents working together to take care of them after a separation.
Many aspects of the family justice system are not changing including: adoption, care and protection, child abduction, mental health, paternity, separation and dissolution (divorce) applications, and powers to act on behalf of others.
New services to help people resolve disputes themselves
The Parenting Through Separation (PTS) course has been expanded and will be free of cost. This course helps focus parents on the needs of children and how to keep them away from conflict during their separation.
People will be able to use the new family dispute resolution (FDR) service. At FDR, a trained mediator will try and help parents reach their own arrangements for how their children will be cared for, without needing lawyers or a judge. People may need to pay for this service and there will be funding for people who are eligible.
Going to court
If people still can’t agree they can apply to the Family Court. In most cases people will have had to attempted both PTS and FDR first.
When a case goes to Family Court, people will be supported to navigate the court independently for straightforward matters. Improved information, a simplified three-track court system, and easy-to-use forms are being introduced to reduce the need for a lawyer in routine matters.
Stronger focus on domestic violence
The maximum penalty for breaching a protection order has been increased from two years to three years imprisonment. The definition of domestic violence has been broadened to include financial abuse. Amendments to the Domestic Violence Act will make non-violence programmes safer and more effective. It also allows people under a protection order to request a safety programme at any time.
Background to changes
In April 2011, the Government asked the Ministry of Justice to review the Family Court. The Ministry asked court users, the judiciary, non-government organisations, government agencies and professionals who work on family matters for their views.
The review identified that:
- court processes were complex, uncertain, and too slow
- there was a lack of focus on children and vulnerable people
- there was insufficient support for resolving parenting issues out of court.
A Family Court reform bill to address these issues was considered by Parliament in 2012. The Bill was considered by the Justice and Electoral Committee, which received 386 written submissions and heard 217 oral submissions.
Parliament passed the law in September and the changes will come into effect in March 2014.