The reforms were supposed to give parents more options outside of costly court proceedings but they have been criticised for creating new problems.
According to an investigation by Radio New Zealand’s Insight, some parents have faced lengthy court delays, crippling lawyers’ bills and being shut out of their children’s lives.
The reforms, which took effect on 31 March 2014, were described by the New Zealand Law Society as the most significant change to the system since the establishment of the Family Court 33 years ago.
“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,” the Law Society said then.
“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,” the organisation added.
In essence, the Family Court was being primed to focus on and reserved for matters that required the expertise of judges and lawyers such as grave cases involving allegations of violence.
Under the reforms, serious cases could be processed using without-notice applications. These urgent applications allow a judge to quickly grant temporary protection without knowing the side of the defendant which could be needed if dependents are in danger or there’s a possibility of violence or abuse.
With a focus on these applications and the move away from less-serious cases, lawyers and legal aid resources have been concentrated on without-notice and more serious matters.
This appears to have created a new problem, the Insight report suggests, as without-notice applications surged in the past three years from 590 to 1104. More parents are choosing to file without-notice applications to have their day in court sooner and to be given assistance from a lawyer.
The problem is complicated by courts failing to meet timeframes, a trend Principal Family Court Judge Laurence Ryan admitted to the news organisation. The judge said delays are worst in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.
“The rules do provide that certain steps in the proceedings are taken within so many weeks. We are unable to comply with that because of the volume of work and the backlogs,” said the judge who noted that the changes were overloading the system.
The Insight report also discussed certain cases which appear to illustrate that without-notice orders cut out some parents from their children’s lives until such a time a court has time for their case which, given the increasing failure to meet deadlines, is becoming longer and longer.
For her part, Justice Minister Amy Adams said individual cases that demonstrate flaws in the system may be happening but would be “unfair” to be labelled as the “standard situation”.
Insight noted, however, that most who have gone through the system know that it is encumbered and without the adequate resources to efficiently deal with matters.