Family Court reform
The family justice system is being reformed to encourage resolution of parenting issues outside the Family Court, where possible.
The proposed reforms will provide greater protection for children and vulnerable people, and place greater emphasis on the welfare and best interests of children. They will reduce the stress on children and families by providing more options for resolving issues without having to go to court. It will also help free up the Family Court to deal with the more serious cases.
The changes will largely affect disputes about who cares for children (Care of Children Act [CoCA] applications). These account for about 40 percent of all Family Court applications. They will also tighten the Family Court's response to domestic violence.
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.
The proposed reforms will introduce a new family dispute resolution (FDR) service, which will help parents reach their own agreements about care arrangements for their children.
FDR will be mandatory for most parents wishing to access the Family Court. Some cases will continue to have direct access to the court, such as those involving domestic violence.
When people do go to the Family Court, they will be supported to navigate the court system independently for straightforward matters. Improved information services, a simplified three-track court system, and easy-to-use forms will be introduced to reduce the need for a lawyer's involvement in routine matters.
The proposed reforms will increase the maximum penalty for breaching a protection order from two years to three years imprisonment.
The reforms will also make non-violence programmes more effective and allow people under a protection order to request a safety programme at any time.
The Family Court Proceedings Reform Bill supports many of the proposed reforms.
History of family justice reform
In April 2011, the Government directed the Ministry of Justice to review the Family Court, and a public consultation paper was released in September 2011. The ministry consulted widely with court users, the judiciary, non-government organisations, government agencies and professionals who work on family matters. An external reference group was also set up to assist with the review.
The ministry review identified that:
- court processes are complex, uncertain, and too slow
- there is a lack of focus on children and vulnerable people
- there is insufficient support for resolving parenting issues out of court.
The review resulted in the Family Court Proceedings Reform Bill, which received its second reading on 2 July 2013 and is due to be passed later in the year.
Before the second reading, the Bill was considered by the Justice and Electoral Committee, which received 386 written submissions and heard 217 oral submissions. As a result, a number of changes were made to the Bill, including:
- Providing parents eligible for support with some initial legal support prior to court-entry.
- Providing some preparatory counselling to help eligible parents make the most of the proposed FDR service.
- Enabling a judge to refer parties back to FDR or the Parenting through Separation course if it is likely to help resolve the case.
- Enabling lawyers to participate earlier in the court process at the judge's discretion, including legal representation at settlement conference, if it would increase the chances of a successful resolution.
- Providing greater clarity around the provisions for dealing with domestic violence to ensure these provisions can be implemented safely and practically.
|Date||What happened||Supporting documents|
|2 July 2013||
Second reading of the Family Court Proceedings Reform Bill.
|4 June 2013||
Bill reported back to the House by Justice and Electoral Committee.
|December 2012 - April 2013||
Submissions on the Bill to the Justice and Electoral Committee.
|4 December 2012||
First reading of the Bill.
Cabinet agrees to family justice reforms.
The External Reference Group issues its report on the Family Court changes.
Public consultation ends.
The Ministry of Justice releases a report summarising the views of of Parenting through Separation course users.
The Government releases a public consultation paper.
An external reference group of is established by the justice minister.
Cabinet agrees to review of Family Court and directs the Ministry of Justice to undertake a review of the Family Court.