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Changes to family justice

The Minister of Justice has announced a package of reforms to the Family Court to create a modern, accessible family justice system that is more focused on the needs of children and vulnerable people.

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

What's changing

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.

Timeline and key documents

Date What happened Supporting documents
19 September 2013 Passing of the Family Court Proceedings Reform Bill. Releases: Collins leads major Family Court reforms  (Beehive website) 
2 July 2013 Second reading of the Family Court Proceedings Reform Bill. Hansard (debates): Family Court Proceedings Reform Bill second reading (New Zealand Parliament website)

Hansard (debates): Family Court Proceedings Reform Bill second reading. Debate resumed (New Zealand Parliament website)
4 June 2013 Bill reported back to the House by Justice and Electoral Committee. Reports of committees: Family Court Proceedings Reform Bill 90-2 (New Zealand Parliament website)

Advice: Family Court Proceedings Reform Bill departmental report (New Zealand Parliament website)

Releases: Judith Collins. Report on Family Court reform welcomed (Beehive website)
December 2012 - April 2013 Submissions on the Bill to the Justice and Electoral Committee. Committee documents: Evidence / submissions (New Zealand Parliament website)

Committee documents: Advice (New Zealand Parliament website)

Releases: Judith Collins. Family Court changes support priorities for reform (Beehive website)
4 December 2012 First reading of the Bill. Releases: Judith Collins. Family Court changes support priorities for reform (Beehive website)
July 2012 Cabinet agrees to family justice reforms. Family Court review proposals for reform: Cabinet paper, July 2012 (PDF, 7.16 MB) 

Family Court and legal aid reform overview: Cabinet paper, July 2012 (PDF, 1.02 MB)

Family Court review regulatory impact statement: Cabinet paper, July 2012 (PDF, 4.41 MB)
April 2012 The External Reference Group issues its report on the Family Court changes. Family Court review Ministry of Justice reference report (PDF, 983.37 KB)
February 2012 Public consultation ends. Family Court review submissions summary: Public consultation paper (PDF, 346.14 KB)

Family Court review: Users questionnaire response summary (PDF, 324.53 KB)
September 2011 The Ministry of Justice releases a report summarising the views of of Parenting through Separation course users. Family Court review Parenting Through Separation participant feedback
September 2011 The Government releases a public consultation paper.

To support development of the consultation paper, a sample of 173 Care of Children Act cases and 88 Property Relationship Act case files were analysed.
Family Court review public consultation paper 
Family Court review summary

Family Court review case file sample

Case file sample
June 2011 An external reference group of is established by the justice minister. Family Court review reference group
April 2011 Cabinet agrees to review of Family Court and directs the Ministry of Justice to undertake a review of the Family Court. The review terms of reference

Family Court review terms of reference Cabinet paper