Speeding up the family court, reducing stress on families

A new law passed last night could see up to 25 percent of Family Court judges’ workload freed up in order to reduce delays, Minister of Justice Kiri Allan said.

The Family Court (Family Court Associates) Legislation Bill will establish a new role known as the Family Court Associate. The role will focus on a mixture of judicial and registrar’s tasks, in order to free up judges’ and enable them to progress substantive matters more quickly.

“Going through the Family Court is already a traumatic and distressing experience for many. Experiencing court delays on top of this compounds that stress. The Government is continuously to look for ways to reduce delays and this new legislation will address that.

“The work of the Family Court is incredibly important. It deals with a diverse set of issues, from the care and protection of children and family violence, through to divorce and relationship property.

“An accessible Family Court that can operate without undue delay is not only key to a fully functioning family justice system but key to ensuring there is better access to justice in New Zealand.

“We want Family Court judges who currently have very high workloads to be able to concentrate on progressing cases through the court.

“I want to acknowledge the individuals and organisations who took the time to submit on the Bill, especially those who shared personal stories about their own experiences.”

The Family Court Associate role is based on one of the recommendations made in the 2019 report, Te Korowai Ture ā-Whānau.

“The Government is currently undertaking a phased approach to the report’s recommendations. Transformation of the family justice system is a five to ten-year project.”

The Government is committed to reducing court delays across the whole justice system. Some of the ongoing work to address this includes:

  • Increasing the number of judges in the Court of Appeal, High Court, and District Court through to 30 June 2025;
  • Establishing the Criminal Process Improvement Programme which establishes  establishing best practice in court procedure in order to minimise delays
  • Establishing a joint work programme with Te Whatu Ora, the Ministry of Health, and Corrections to address issues around court ordered forensic reports.

Notes:

Matters that are more complex or have a significant impact on human rights will still be completed by judges, for example, most matters under the Family Violence Act and final decisions on the care of children under the Care of Children Act.

The Family Court Associate will be a judicial officer, with independence from the Executive. Examples of tasks that Family Court Associates will carry out include decisions made at the early stages of proceedings and interlocutory matters, such as, directing parties to undertake dispute resolution, making orders by consent, appointing lawyers, and convening settlement conferences.

In 2020, the Government began to deliver the first phase of reform based on the 2019 report Te Korowai Ture ā-Whānau report, aimed at better supporting families and children through the family justice system.

This first phase included: 

  • Reinstating legal representation in the early stages of Care of Children Act 2004 proceedings in the Family Court, with legal aid for eligible parties;
  • Providing quality, accessible information for children, parents and families to help them navigate the family justice system;
  • Establishing Kaiārahi – Family Court Navigators to help parents and whānau navigate the system; and
  • Increasing lawyer for child remuneration to incentivise the recruitment and retention of skilled practitioners.