Hon Judith Collins addresses the AMINZ Annual Conference on Family Court Reform
Address to Arbitrators and Mediators Conference
3 August 2012, 9.25am. Te Papa, Wellington
Thank you for the opportunity to speak this morning.
Its great to be here particularly in light of the reform I announced yesterday for our family justice system.
I outlined the Governments plan to deliver a modern accessible family justice system that is efficient, effective and more responsive to children and vulnerable people.
Last year, the Ministry of Justice completed a review of the Family Court after significant concerns about the Court were raised by the public, judges, lawyers and counsellors.
The Ministry received a great deal of feedback on the review including the joint submission from AMINZ and LEADR.
Id like to thank you AMINZ for your contribution. Your input, along with that of an External Reference Group, workshops, meetings and conversations helped to shape the reform proposals.
The proposals represent the most significant change to our family justice system since the Family Court was established in 1981.
Were encouraging faster, less adversarial resolution of family dispute.
We want to improve the systems focus on the needs of children and vulnerable people.
And we want to help people settle their disputes without going to court.
Parties will have to participate in alternative dispute resolution and a parenting information course before applying to the Court
Were introducing case tracks to give parties certainty, clarity and opportunity to navigate the court process independently.
This morning Id like to focus on three areas of out of court resolution Improved information services, the mandatory Parenting Through Separation course and, most importantly, Family Dispute Resolution.
A shift in focus
The most significant change in the reforms I have outlined is a shift towards resolving as many disputes as possible outside of the Family Court itself.
Courts, by their very nature, can increase conflict between parties.
And while Family Court judges are well qualified to make decisions about family issues, experience shows it is best if families are able to solve their own disputes.
As mediators, youll be well aware that when people are empowered to resolve issues themselves, they take ownership of the agreement and are better able to get on with their lives.
This shift towards out of court dispute resolution is in line with international trends.
Australia overhauled its system in 2006, moving away from litigation and towards what they describe as co-operative parenting. We have the opportunity to learn from the Australian experience.
Improved information services
Better information is critical to helping people through the process, and to get on with their lives.
Good, clear information about parenting and separation can help families resolve disputes without draining and drawn-out mediation attempts, or resorting to complex and costly court proceedings.
The Ministry of Justice will develop better information resources for all these situations.
They will likely include more flexible and user-friendly online resources and a greater emphasis on placement of information, including in organisations involved with hard-to-reach communities.
These resources will also ensure that people are clear about both the costs of court action, and the benefits of out of court resolution.
Im sure that you will agree that improved information will increase the likelihood that disputes will be resolved faster and more amicably both in court and out.
Parenting Through Separation
The proposed reforms will expand the use and availability of the well regarded Parenting Through Separation Programme.
The programme will be mandatory for people wishing to apply for a parenting order. There will be some exemptions such as people making without notice applications and where there are language difficulties.
Parenting Through Separation covers topics such as how separation affects children, what they need during separation, how to talk to your children about change, and how to keep them away from arguments.
The programme has been extremely successful, and is one of the areas of the family justice system that is universally praised by everyone we have consulted with including the AMINZ submission.
People will be able to take part in courses in person, or via an interactive version online.
I expect that between the increased and improved information resources developed and the expanded use of Parenting Through Separation, more people will resolve disputes themselves.
For those who need additional support in reaching an agreement there will be a new out of court Family Dispute Resolution service.
Family Dispute Resolution
This service is the biggest change between the current family justice system and the proposed one.
Family Dispute Resolution aims to resolve disputes, in particular those involving children.
I hope also to expand Family Dispute Resolution to other types of disputes that fall within the Family Courts jurisdiction, such as relationship property.
As most of you will be aware, international research has consistently shown that Court proceedings are damaging for children.
Despite the best efforts of their parents and court professionals to shield them, conflict inevitably stresses the children who are often at the centre of the dispute.
The new system incorporates Family Dispute Resolution as part of a more sophisticated and structured approach to resolving disputes outside of the Court.
Attempting Family Dispute Resolution will be a mandatory prerequisite for those contemplating entering Court in many cases.
There will be exceptions for example, cases where there are safety concerns for the parties or their children. If so, the Court will be a more appropriate response.
I anticipate that Family Dispute Resolution will be similar to the mediations some of you already perform for families.
It will be a flexible method of dispute resolution, one that is capable of being tailored to individual needs and circumstances.
It will be possible, for example, to solve one dispute with a discussion between the parties and their Family Dispute Resolution provider, and another through a meeting involving wider family members as part of the decision-making process.
The legislative framework within which Family Dispute Resolution works will be broad enough to allow this sort of customisation.
The primary aim will be to bring the parties to a resolution and to do so in a child-focussed way.
It is vitally important to encourage parents to be responsible for reducing the negative impact their conflict can have on their children.
The Ministry of Justice will work with professional bodies such as yours to develop practice standards and ensure there are clear guidelines around training and development for Family Dispute Resolution practitioners.
What if Family Dispute Resolution doesnt
While I have high hopes for Family Dispute Resolution, it may not work for everyone. There could be a couple of remaining issues upon which the parties cannot agree.
Whatever the reason, if Family Dispute Resolution was unsuccessful or unsuitable, one or both of the parties may decide that court action is necessary.
Family Dispute Resolution practitioners would then provide parties with a standard form advising the Court of the outcome, and court proceedings could begin.
Id like thank you again for inviting me to speak to you today and for your contribution to the development of this reform of the family justice system.
AMINZ has provided valuable input throughout the policy formation process, and I expect will continue to be involved over the next year.
I would also like to wish the conference well.
If you have questions about the Family Court review and the Governments reforms for the family justice system Id be happy to take them now.