Warring parents will be encouraged to sort out custody disputes and other matters without lawyers, under a shake-up of the Family Court.
Justice minister Judith Collins announced a series of reforms today which include introducing a Family Disputes Resolution (FDR) service.
Families must go through this system to sort out private parenting matters, such as school holiday care on contact arrangements, before applying to the court.
The FDR service will cost $780 (excluding GST) – which Collins says is cheaper than hiring lawyers. If this unsuccessful, parents can make an application to court.
Automatic access to pre-court free counselling will be axed – but could be granted by a judge. Private providers, approved by the justice ministry, will staff the FDR.
Collins said the proposals will minimise the harmful impact conflict has on children. It will reduce court applications by 4000 and see 2000 fewer children going to court each year. She estimates it will save $70m over four years. Parents who are eligible will still be entitled to legal aid.
The government also proposes simplifying court processes. Three new ”tracks” will be introduced. A ”fast track” will deal with urgent applications such as allegations of domestic violence and protection of children.
A ”simple track” will deal with single issues like contact arrangements for children. Parties will represent themselves without the need for a lawyer.
Under the ”standard track” the court will deal with more serious issues such as an application for day to day care or permission to take children to live overseas. Parties will represent themselves for most of this process. However, if the dispute is not resolved the case moves to a formal hearing with lawyers present.
Affidavits will also now take a standardised questionnaire form.
The reforms also aim to crack down on repeat applications. In 2010-11 there were 26, 281 Care of Children Act applications – involving just 8678 families. Under the proposals, parties must get the permission of a judge to commence new proceedings where an order has been made in the last two years.
Collins said the overhaul is the first significant changes since the Family Court was established in 1981. The Family Court Reform Bill will be introduced to Parliament later this year. It will also include:
* increasing the penalty for breaching a protection order from two years to three years imprisonment;
* improving domestic violence programmes;
* extending the definition of domestic violence in law to include economic abuse. This includes restricting access to money, extorting or spending the victim’s money or preventing someone from working outside the home;
* makes parenting information courses mandatory.