26 Oct 2016

Family Court delays at tipping point, lawyers say

8:42 am on 26 October 2016

Long delays in the Family Court are now evident at every court in the country and the government can no longer ignore the problem, lawyers say.

The back log of defended cases more than two years old is at its highest level since 2011, and the principal Family Court judge Laurence Ryan recently admitted judges were failing to meet any of their timeframes.

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Photo: 123rf

One of the reasons for the lengthy delays is the increase in the number of urgent applications, which has almost doubled from 590 in June 2013, to 1104 in June 2016.

The average number of days for obtaining a parenting order has increased from 275 in March 2013, to 329 in March 2016.

A 2014 law change to the Family Court was intended to encourage parents to resolve their problems themselves, leaving courts to deal with the most serious issues.

Ministry of Justice figures show in the two years before the law change there were about 24,000 cases filed, but in the two years since the changes there have been just 13,000 cases filed.

Justice Minister Amy Adams said that was partly because of a flood of applications before the law change, from lawyers wanting their cases heard under the old rules.

Ms Adams recently said it was unfair to characterise those waiting a year for an urgent hearing in the Family Court as a standard situation.

"Without knowing the specific case you're talking about, I can't possibly respond. But it's unfair, I think, to characterise that as being a standard situation, it's certainly not to the best of my knowledge."

But the chairperson of the Law Society's Family Law section, Michelle Duggan, said contrary to the Minister's remarks, lengthy delays were now a feature of every family court in the country - with some areas, like Auckland, faring worse than others.

"Around our table we have lawyers from all parts of the country and they represent lawyers in city's and in smaller towns and everyone around the table is saying delay is a concern. It's a real issue in all parts of the country," she said.

Ms Duggan also rejected claims by Ms Adams that the delays were due to a surge in cases filed before changes to the Family Court, saying that was two and a half years ago.

She said the government needed to address the lack of court hearing time.

"Judges are working to capacity, but if there are more files than they can possibly deal with, they just can't get it done. People can't have decisions, people can't move on with their lives," she said.

Ms Adams said the Ministry of Justice was working with judges, lawyers and their own staff to reduce court waiting times, with some success, but no one group is responsible for the delays.

She said waiting times across the court system are reducing and waiting times in the Family Court have been falling since July.

"It's diabolical" - Fathers speak out

One man RNZ spoke to said he was speaking out because he was shocked at his experience in the Family Court, having had an urgent application filed against him.

A white collar professional, his ordeal began in April when his ex-wife filed a domestic violence order against him and sought custody of their two children.

Initially he was only able to see his two children, aged 2 and 5, for two hours a week. That has now been increased to five hours.

After waiting five months for a domestic violence hearing, he was still unsure when a hearing to decide custody would be decided, although despite his case being deemed urgent, it won't be heard this year.

"Being able to see the children for two hours a week for almost three months is a bit unreasonable, and they haven't even substantiated any of the claims.

"Basically you can go to the Family Court with any allegation and they make a judgement saying 'if these things are true, then the children need protection.' So someone can lie through their teeth, just to get these emergency orders. "

Another man RNZ spoke to had spent about $50,000 on lawyers fees but faced lengthy delays, and had now abandoned the battle to see his son.

After his ex-wife filed an urgent application in October 2014, he had psychiatric and psychologist reports completed, before a judge requested an urgent hearing in January.

He thought the matter would be heard in six weeks, but it took seven months.

"That was probably going to be in August, but I pulled out in February 2016 because it had just got to me to such an extent, both emotionally and financially. I just couldn't cope with going with the hearing any further," he said.

He hadn't seen his son for over two years and isn't able to challenge the order until March 2018, unless his circumstances change.

He told RNZ it had had a huge impact on him.

"It's diabolical. I mean, if they knew that they suddenly had this huge influx of cases because of the change of law in March/April 2014 they should have managed it.

"They should have either got retired judges in or appointed some temporary judges to clean out that mess, upfront. Instead of just sort of leaving it and then thinking, 'oh maybe some of these people will go away, so we've got one less case to handle," he said.