Suicides prompt child custody shakeup
A high suicide rate among people involved in Family Court custody proceedings has prompted the country’s top family judge to shake up the system.
The court is speeding up the way it deals with childcare disputes, particularly when they involve potential violence or abuse.
Principal Family Court Judge Peter Boshier said too many people were losing hope when cases dragged on, and were taking their own lives. “If they can’t see a solution in sight then what started off as depression becomes full-on hopelessness. I am driven by a desire to give people a light at the end of the tunnel.”
Between May 2008 and June last year, 18 people died from suspected suicide. Judge Boshier had anecdotal evidence that suggested the pattern was continuing.
Cases involving family break-ups often resulted in bitter disputes between parents.
“Some parents use the court as a battleground to vent their frustrations with the other parent, and being able to do that is more important than concentrating on the real issue.
“This can cause considerable delay in resolving the issues, which can be harmful to the welfare of the children caught in the middle of these conflicts.”
From Monday, the more than 27,000 cases filed each year that relate to children will enter the court’s new early intervention process.
Cases in which there are safety concerns for children will be treated swiftly.
Parents in non-urgent cases will be sent to counselling. If this fails they will move on to lawyer-assisted mediation and then a conference before a judge.
If the parents are still unable to reach an agreement the case will go to a full hearing before a judge, with wait times no longer than a month.
Judge Boshier said the new system would be quicker, cheaper and more effective than the old one, once Justice Ministry staff and lawyers adjusted to the changes.
“The . . . process is a landmark for the court and will be one of its most significant reforms since the Family Court was created in 1981.
“We have struggled to control our custody conflicts for a long time and there are still too many cases that are taking too long to proceed through the system. Children need stability restored to their lives after the trauma of family break up. It is vital to their welfare that the conflict surrounding them is reduced . . . as soon as possible.”
Mental Health Foundation chief executive Judi Clements was delighted at the changes, which would reduce families’ stress and anxiety. “I applaud the move.”
Law Society spokesman Paul Maskell said the group also supported the move. “Cases will come to judges much sooner and many families will get results from court a lot more quickly.”