Family Court fight escalates

by Sol Dolor24 Apr 2017
New Zealand’s top Family Court judge has hit back at a group after it recently asserted that the Family Court “is a dangerous place for women and children.”

The Backbone Collective, which describes itself as a national group of survivors of violence against women, recently formulated 160 questions about how the Family Court currently functions, with the help of 10 court users.

“[The questions] shine a light on the dysfunction that is happening in the Family Court – the dangers, the misunderstandings, the misinformed decision-making, and the mirroring of the abuse by those in power. These questions require immediate responses,” Deborah Mackenzie, one of the group’s founders, said in statement.

“The questions these 10 members have asked, together with the many detailed stories women have shared with us in the past month, leave us in little doubt that the Family Court is currently a dangerous place for women and children,” she said.

The country’s principal Family Court judge, Laurence Ryan, said in a statement that many of the questions asked relate to matters either already being actively considered by Parliament around family violence, or which have been dealt with by Parliament recently.

Saying that New Zealand is a “robust and open democracy,” Ryan added that the country has an independent judiciary with a “clear separation of powers” among the branches of government. While policy and law making – and public engagement in that process – is for elected representatives, the judiciary is concerned with independently interpreting and applying the laws passed by lawmakers, with guidance from legal precedent and the higher courts.

“Responses to family violence, the care and protection of children and the court’s role are rightly a matter of high public interest. Although by convention, judges do not engage directly in public or political debate … [they also do not] wish to stymie or discourage such debate. However, for the community, policymakers and lawmakers to discuss these issues meaningfully it is important that debate starts with accurate information,” Ryan said. “Unfortunately a number of the questions the collective now wants answered are premised on erroneous or flawed interpretations of, and assumptions about, the current legal framework in which the Family Court operates.”

Ryan said that the court is not closed, secret, or hidden as the questions suggest. In fact, it has been increasingly open to news media since the introduction of certain laws in 2004 and 2008 paved the way for many of its proceedings to be publicly reported.

The court is also accountable and independently monitored, he said. Ryan said that all decisions of the court are open to appeal, a mechanism that acts as a “safety valve.” He also said that the Family Court does not minimise allegations of family violence during consideration of parenting access matters.

“As the principal Family Court judge, it particularly concerns me that Family Court judges are being painted unfairly as uncaring and unprofessional and as putting people in harm’s way,” Ryan said. “This risks undermining public confidence in the courts and the impartial administration of justice, especially among people who may desperately need the court’s help during a distressing period of their lives.”

Not everyone will be satisfied of outcomes from the Family Court, he said, but a “combative debate” pitting the judiciary against those it serves is not conducive to improving outcomes, especially for children.

Ryan said he would issue no further statements regarding the group’s concerns and allegations.

Related stories:
Flaws in Family Court reforms highlighted
Criminal Bar warns of even less access to justice in rural communities