Raise Family Court concerns through proper channels, Law Society tells critics

by Sol Dolor28 Apr 2017
The New Zealand Law Society is calling for critics of the Principal Family Court to raise through proper channels their allegations of “system failure” and “dysfunction” in the judicial body.

This comes after The Backbone Collective, an anti-domestic violence group, accused the court of putting women and children in further danger because of lapses in the interpretation of legislation.

“We have heard from some women that they have been advised by their lawyers not to leave their abusive partner because the Family Court will force their children into care arrangements with him upon separation. So, women stay in an unsafe home to protect their children,” said Deborah Mackenzie, one of the collective’s co-founders. “Women who have left the abuser and been through the Family Court tell us they have ended up with care arrangements that put their children in greater risk.

Judge Laurence Ryan recently said that Family Court judges are “being painted unfairly as uncaring and unprofessional and as putting people in harm’s way.”

Michelle Duggan, chair of the NZ Law Society’s Family Law Section, said it’s disappointing that a project aimed at confronting violence against women “has become diverted into a series of erroneous allegations about the integrity of the Family Court, its judges and lawyers.”

She said that the Law Society does not condone violence against women and that it agrees with the collective. However, the debate on the issue should not be conducted through the media. A more appropriate method is a submission to the Parliament’s Justice and Electoral Committee on the Family and Whānau Violence Legislation Bill, she said.

Duggan added:

“Contrary to the Collective’s view, it also cannot be said that the Family Court is secret and free from scrutiny. Family Court decisions are available online and the parties can always appeal to the High Court. The media can report on Family Court cases.

“It is also not correct to say that Lawyers for the Child are failing to keep children safe. The Lawyer for Child does not have a decision-making role – rather, the role of Lawyer for Child is to promote the welfare and best interests of the children and to ensure that, if expressed, a child’s views are put before the Court.”

Duggan said that the Law Society will continue to advocate for change in the Family Court’s processes, in legal aid, and in access to legal representation.

“That said, we are totally supportive of the integrity of the judges of the Family Court,” she said. “Like everyone, Judges are not infallible, but they are highly skilled professionals who are obliged by the Care of Children Act to take account of domestic violence and to always ensure the safety of children from all forms of violence.”

Duggan said that since Family Court judges make tough decisions, the court cannot please all parties.

“The Court’s role is to make decisions based on the evidence placed before it, on parenting arrangement that protect the safety of a child and put that child’s best interests first. The Family Court process is a fraught and combative process and often there are no ‘winners’ – just exhausted participants. Our Family Court judges work in that environment and New Zealanders are well-served by them,” she said.

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