NZ Bar Association applauds re-establishment of early family lawyer access in care disputes

Parties will be able to receive legal advice at the start of disputes, reducing delays in the resolution process

NZ Bar Association applauds re-establishment of early family lawyer access in care disputes

The New Zealand Bar Association (NZBA) has applauded the re-establishment of early family lawyer access in care disputes.

On Wednesday, Justice Minister Andrew Little announced the implementation of legislation that would “restore the right to legal representation at the start of a Care of Children (CoCA) dispute in the Family Court, and allow parties to those proceedings to access legal aid where eligible.”

The decision came about following a visit to the Family Court in Auckland, where the minister spoke with court staff and lawyers for children regarding the challenges faced by families and whanau in the process of resolving disputes.

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“The move rewinds the clock on reforms that were introduced in 2014, which meant that parties could not get legal representation from the start of care disputes,” the NZBA said.

The lack of legal access had caused the number of without-notice applications filed in the Family Court to spike, overwhelming the court. As a result, the association said, the dispute resolution process was fraught with long delays and uncertainty.

CoCA disputes currently take an average of 245 days to resolve, and Little said that such delays could “result in emotional harm to children, and stress and anxiety to their parents and whanau.”

With access to legal representation restored, disputes can be resolved in a more timely manner.

“Family lawyers are experienced in taking the heat out of matters and often resolve issues early in the dispute,” said NZBA Bar Association president Kate Davenport QC. “They ensure that parties understand the process before they become involved in court proceedings and have realistic expectations of the likely outcomes.”

Little said the legislation “will ensure that parents and whānau are well-supported and kept safe during Family Court proceedings, will help address delays in the Family Court. Together these changes will better enable durable resolution of care of children disputes.”

The minister also announced the establishment of new family justice liaison officers in the Family Court to aid families in navigating the court system, as well as an increase in remuneration lawyers for child “to incentivise the recruitment and retention of skilled practitioners.”

“Funding increases for lawyers for child will increase each year for the next four years,” Little said.

The NZBA welcomed this decision, noting that the last increase was back in 1996.

“Over the twenty-four years since then, the monetary value of the work has decreased to the point where family practitioners are almost doing the work partly pro bono. Their work needs to be recognised,” Davenport said.

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