Family court reform to save millions – Collins

Changes to the family court system will save $70 million over the next four years, Justice minister Judith Collins says.

Miss Collins hopes a raft of changes will see 2000 fewer children and their families heading to court each year.

The changes stem from a review of the court system earlier this year after serious concerns raised by the public, judges and lawyers.

A new compulsory "parenting through separation" course and family dispute resolution service are being created to resolve as many cases as possible before they reach court.

Miss Collins is also planning to increase the penalty for breaching a protection order, from two to three years in prison, and extending the definition of domestic violence, recognising "economic abuse" as a form of psychological abuse.

“Economic abuse includes restricting access to money, extorting or spending the victim’s money or preventing a person from working outside the home.

"Abusers will be subject to a mandatory needs-assessment and will have to undertake a minimum specified number of hours with an approved ‘stopping domestic violence’ provider.”

She says it is an unfortunate fact that many couples face relationship issues and have to deal with break-ups during their lives.

“The vast majority sort out matters themselves.”

Miss Collins says the family disputes resolution service, which will cost $780 to attend, is "about the cost of an hour of a lawyer’s time" on a half-share basis.

The service will deal with common disputes, such as:

  • Day-to-day care and contact arrangements.
  • Choosing a school and extra-curricular activities.
  • School holiday care.

Miss Collins gave the example of a woman who has spent more than three years in the family court system so far.

“During that time, there have been ten court hearings or fixtures, there have been three judges, six lawyers, one child psychologist and three reports, nine professional access supervisors, four court-appointed counsellors and 24 separate applications have been filed so far by the applicant.

"This has cost her $200,000 to date and it is on-going.”

Miss Collins says for those cases which must head to court, the family court will also fall into line with the district and high courts, with three new tracks designed to let "judges triage the cases".

  • The fast track is for all urgent applications – eg, allegations of domestic violence and protection of children are automatically allocated.
  • The simple track is for parties who want to represent themselves, without the need for a lawyer.
  • The standard track is for applications for multiple or more serious issues – eg, an application for day-to-day care or permission to take children to live overseas.

Miss Collins says this will not mean a reduction in the number of family courts or family court judges.

She wants judges to have more time to spend on serious cases involving violence and the vulnerable. 

The family court dealt with 26,281 cases in 2010-11. Under the changes the justice ministry expects 4000 will be resolved without the need of the court.

The cost of running the family court has increased 70% in 2004-05 to $142 million in the 2010-11 year. Professional service costs, including family lawyers, counsellors, mediators and psychologists have also increased to $62.9 million in the same period.

A September 2011 paper Reviewing the Family Court drew 209 submissions and is set to be introduced to parliament later this year, before heading to select committee.

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13 Comments & Questions

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Savings will evaporate if same sex same marriage bill goes through.

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What utter toss!! The Court can currently deal with all and any type of same sex family dispute. In fact, if the Marriage Act is amended so as to include same sex couples, arguably the Court's "income" will increase as more people will apply for dissolution of marriages - which do not require a lawyer and are granted administratively by a Registrar - and attract a filing fee of (from memory) $200.

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same sex marriage bill would require huge investment government wide to update basic administration functions to allow for the new definitions.
this work will have to be repeated throughout the community.

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Access to justice can not be denied.

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The $200K case mentioned is still going on ... Problem is ... all Family Court proceedings are closed to the public so no-one know what Family Court Judges get up to ... which is actually not much - the delays alone are unbelievable but the sad part is that existing legislation actually allows judges to direct parties to arbitration instead of litigation - but that does not happen in practice. So while the reform of the Family Court is a good thing ... the fundamental problem remains - Family Court judges are a law unto themselves - there is no oversight whatsoever - and if you lodge a complaint there is no record of what you are complaining about ... ludicrous really. The facts speak for themselves - a case going on for 4 years and the 'system' has not resolved it yet ... one party with heaps of money is using the FC to abuse the other - at what point does someone step in to protect the interests of the child? Sure the reforms are aimed at doing that - but the bottom line is that these extreme cases will still end up in the Courts and the same Family Court judges will continue to do the same things - i.e. allow it to just drag on interminably with the caregiver of the child/ren in question being financially and emotionally devastated along the way.

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Go Crusher, go

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Anything that gets rid of the lawyers is a good thing....

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Agreed, the lawyers add to the problem and in many case fuel the litigation process. Their presence is entirely self-serving and counterproductive to resolution. Where's the incentive for a lawyer to work towards a swift resolution when they can keep draining their clients (the respondents) endlessly.

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"Miss Collins says the family disputes resolution service, which will cost $780 to attend, is "about the cost of an hour of a lawyer’s time" on a half-share basis" is fantasy. I just checked the Ministry of Justice site and lawyers on the new fixed fee schedules get paid $53-00 per half hour for a defended fixture in the Family Court.

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The biggest thing that has been overlooked in this reform is the bizarre closed nature of the FC, the extreme restrictions placed on media reporting on FC cases and the common refusal/failure of the FC to supply transcripts that have been officially requested. It is noted that no other court in the land operates in this manner. Deeply embedded in our common law is the principle that justice should be administered openly. It is not a guarantee against injustice, but it is a powerful disincentive to the abuse of power which FC judges are notoriously known for. The truth is power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely!!!

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FC should be closed court. "Guard your heart for out of it flow the issues of life"
If it is prudent for a person to be private when it comes to matters of the heart then it is even more prudent for society to support that privacy.
In that context disciplinary matters relating to Judges and abuse of process can be dealt with in other ways.

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Anyone who thinks that Judges abuse of process can be dealt with 'in other ways' is dreaming. Personal experience speaks louder than opinion. Judges say what they like and transcripts never emerge, or when they do they are so sanitised as to be unrecognizable.

Open the doors of the Family Court! The identities of minors are already protected 'in other ways'.

Who watches the watchers?

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OPEN THE DOORS TO THE FAMILY COURT - HEAR HEAR, I'm in my 4th year waiting for a resolution and at huge cost. It's a disgrace to call it justice.

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