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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.