Judith Collins' announcement today that the legislation restricting access to the Family Court has raised concerns that it has been timed to avoid proper parliamentary scrutiny, Labour’s Charles Chauvel says.
"I have had many messages of concern today from family lawyers, providers of counselling services, and others with expertise in the way the Family Court works. They are worried that the legislation being introduced today will be read a first time and then referred to a select committee on one of just seven days that are left for Parliament to sit this year.
“If that happens, the concern is that submissions will be called for over the Christmas/New Year period, when many legal and counselling practices are closed, minimising the likelihood of a good number of quality submissions from those with experience of the likely effect of the reforms.
"A major feature of the legislation is its introduction of a new $1000-plus fee to access the new ‘Family Dispute Resolution Service’, which will be the first stop for most family law issues. In most cases, it is currently free to access the Court and the counselling services it provides, with six sessions available to couples to help sort out their problems.
“The proposal radically changes the nature of the Family Court, and has the potential to limit access to it. It also restricts the use of lawyers in the Family Court, including appointments as lawyer for children involved. The radical and controversial nature of these legislative changes is why it is so important for experts practising in the family law area to have the fullest opportunity to make submissions to the select committee.
“Last month, the Family Law Reference Group, set up by former Justice Minister Simon Power, disagreed publicly with Ms Collins' proposed changes, and contradicted her claim that they had been consulted over them, while Chair Anthony Mahon said there were real risks for vulnerable parents and children whom the Minister claims she wants to protect.
"Many will find rich irony, if stakeholders' suspicions prove well-founded, in Judith Collins' statement today on another matter - Law Commission-recommended reform of the court system. In her response to that report she says she is 'focussed on an accessible and people-centred justice system'.
"Her legislation to restrict family court access, on top of her government's existing cuts to legal aid and allowing a backlog of 900 jury trials to build up in the Auckland region, have done more than anything else in recent New Zealand history to restrict people's access to justice.
“Let's hope she doesn't now compound all that by seeking to circumvent proper scrutiny of the Family Court amendment by acting to limit the effective ability of experts in the field to make submissions to the select committee about its provisions", Charles Chauvel said.