2 Aug 2012

Family Court system in for sweeping changes

8:15 pm on 2 August 2012

Sweeping changes to the Family Court system include a process to reduce the number of cases ending up in the court, and doing away with lawyers for routine matters.

Announcing the changes on Thursday, Justice Minister Judith Collins said they put children first.

Cases will be streamed before they get to court, with a fast track for urgent cases involving abuse and simple and standard tracks where lawyers will not be needed, saving money on legal aid.

Except for cases involving domestic violence or child abuse, families will first have to take part in a disputes resolution process, at a cost of about $900. If the process does not resolve an issue, a case can still be pursued through the court.

Ms Collins says most applicants to the court will need to complete a Parenting Through Counselling course, to help them understand how the court process can affect their child.

Other changes include questionnaire affidavits to simplify court processes and a new category for domestic violence called economic abuse.

Family Court judges are to be given the power to stop people from constantly reapplying to the court to resolve their disputes.

There will also be an immediate cut to free counselling through the court - from up to six hours down to one.

Ms Collins says the reforms are the most significant since the Family Court was established 30 years ago. She says the review of the court completed earlier this year highlighted the need for a modern, efficient system that's more responsive to children and vulnerable people.

Labour's justice spokesperson, Charles Chauvel, says the changes will disadvantage families that can't afford the $900 fee. He says the court is currently free because it's recognised that vulnerable children need disputes resolved.

It's estimated the changes will save about $70 million over four years.