4 April 2012
Catholic Social Services is concerned that a review of the Family Court may do away with one of its most valuable aspects for families, that of couples counselling, forcing families in strife to pay for this vital service themselves.
The Justice Ministry initiated the review a year ago with former minister Simon Power saying in September when the review was opened for public consultation, ‘The escalating costs, for no apparent improvement in outcomes, indicate that the Family Court is not as efficient as it could be’.
The review paper suggests that couples could seek counselling themselves.
But Catholic Social Services counsellor Gail Teale who made a submission on behalf of the Wellington branch of the New Zealand Counsellors Association says if couples have to pay for counselling themselves, they may delay, allowing the issue to escalate.
‘Often couples breaking up are caught in a cycle of blaming the other person. So if someone says “you need to sort out arrangements”, there’s a reaction – “why should I pay for that?”’
Ultimately it is the children who suffer.
Under the Aims of the Review, the ministry says
Private parenting disputes make up the majority of the Family Court’s workload. In order to reduce the overall cost of the Court, the Review will propose specific measures to reduce the cost of these cases. However, many cases under the Care of Children Act 2004 are associated with family violence, mental health, and alcohol and drug issues. These situations are highly risky for children. The Review must consider how to progress these cases more efficiently, manage costs, and improve outcomes for children.
Research done by the NZAC has shown that more than 80 percent of couples who access counselling early don’t need any further involvement with the Family Court and stay together or resolve matters concerning the separation that are likely to affect the children.
‘There is a lot of evidence that supports the fact that the counselling is an efficient way of reducing costs.’
But, she is concerned that the government is looking at short-term rather than long-term costs and not recognising the positive impact court funded counselling is currently having on reducing the number of families involved with the Family Court.
Removing or significantly reducing the counselling service from the Family Court would make children more vulnerable.
Parent behaviour affects children
What goes on between parents and whether they are able to communicate effectively has a dramatic effect on the lives of the children.
‘If there’s arguing or violence between the parents, this affects the child’s ability to socialise, can lead to problems in their own behaviour with the chance they’re going to get into trouble later, and it affects their ability to learn and to succeed in education.’
She cites a study that former principal Family Court judge Peter Boshier drew attention to in 2009 that showed that in the previous year 22 people who were in the Family Court system died by suspected suicide (18) or homicide. At the time he called for more mental health support for people involved in the Family Court.
‘Here we are just a couple of years later looking at quite likely reducing those mental health services.’
Some less harmful savings
Gail suggests a couple of ways to reduce costs. Instead of a lawyer for the child being hired when the process reaches mediation, a counsellor to advocate for the child and work with the parents could be employed when the family first seeks help.
This early intervention could save costs and ensure a more favourable outcome for the child and the family.
Another way would be to restrict counselling, which is presently available to all couples, to those who have dependent children.
If the Family Court were to stop providing counselling for families in trouble, Catholic Social Services’ concern is that families will not access counselling assistance, resulting in escalating family stress, violence and family break-ups.