Children tipped to lose out in Family Court changes

Features Cecily McNeill2 October 2012 Children will be the biggest losers in a review of the Family Court which recommends that the court’s highly successful counselling service be cut. This…


Cecily McNeill
2 October 2012

Children tipped to lose out in Family Court changes Archdiocese of WellingtonChildren will be the biggest losers in a review of the Family Court which recommends that the court’s highly successful counselling service be cut. This is despite the government framing proposed changes as ‘putting children first’.

Catholic Social Services counsellor Gail Teale says it is likely couples who want to separate will bypass the court completely which means the dominant partner’s wishes will override those of the more vulnerable partner – usually the woman – and any children will lose out completely. ‘The risks for families where there are abuse issues are likely to increase.’

Gail Teale says the existing counselling currently sees more than 80 percent of couples who attended counselling manage to resolve their differences and avoid further involvement with the court.
‘All of the work that was about providing any form of intervention and support for families in crisis to help them avoid separation will be gone. The services they are talking about are aimed at families that have either decided to separate or have already separated and they’re framing that as putting children first.’

The government announced a Family Court review last year and Catholic Social Services and the Law Society were among those who made submissions advocating the needs of children within the proposed changes. But the latest plan does not appear to have been influenced by these submissions.

A streamlined Family Court would require couples to do a previously voluntary Parenting Through Separation course which they will be able to complete on the internet. ‘This makes me wonder if a reluctant partner will be able to do it online just to say they’ve done it without actually engaging in the process.’

Then couples must access a Family Dispute Resolution service (FDR) for which they will be charged around $900. ‘Many couples will not be able to afford this fee. Then there are the fees they must pay every time they file applications with the court or go through a court hearing.’ There is no suggestion that children will ‘have a voice’ in the FDR.

Gail Teale says it is unrealistic to expect that couples will be able to resolve the dispute themselves. Many are at breaking point by the time they reach this stage.
‘Very few couples mutually decide to separate and work through it while the majority are feeling hurt, frustrated and angry with the other person. There is often a huge sense of loss particularly if children are involved.

‘One party will often fear that the burden of childcare will fall on them. Then there’s an issue of trust around the idea of allowing the partner to have the children on their own. Lots of things get in the way of their being able to resolve these issues on their own.’

If the proposed FDR goes ahead, Catholic Social Services is expecting to see more couples trying to sort out their differences without recourse to the court. This will put pressure on the agency and on other non-government organisations also struggling to find funding to continue their work.
‘It’s likely we will see those couples who want to try to work things through in their relationship or work out parenting plans, but can’t afford to go through the courts and they will look for lower cost means of doing that.’

Law Society to fight fee
Meanwhile the Law Society says it will oppose the imposition of a fee for the FDR believing that the State should provide this service in the interests of obtaining ‘quick, sustainable and equitable resolution’ of family disputes.

It says 30 years after the court was established it was timely to review it in light of rapid social and economic changes.

Some of the proposed changes that reflect the recommendations made in the Law Society’s submission and the report of the Minister’s Advisory Group will improve the way the court works but the Law Society shares Catholic Social Services’ concern that children and vulnerable women will not be heard or properly advocated for in the new setup.

The Family Court Reform Bill will be introduced to the House later this year. The Bill will then be referred to a select committee where anyone with an interest in the Family Court will have the opportunity to have their say on the Bill. The more people who speak out about these changes, the more likely we can influence the outcomes for families and children in crisis. Click here for a Family Court judge’s response.

Image: Gail Teale