31 Mar 2013

Govt to water down changes to Family Court

6:19 am on 31 March 2013

The Government is to water down proposed changes to the Family Court system which would have banned lawyers from acting in the early stages of disputes about the care of children.

Lawyers and the full Family Court bench have attacked the reform bill, saying it could discourage parents from seeking help and mean that fewer cases are settled.

Justice Minister Judith Collins says her officials have listened to the criticism and will recommend changes to the select committee considering the bill.

Most significantly, the revised bill is likely to allow lawyers to act earlier in the process.

Ms Collins announced the changes in August last year, which were estimated to save about $70 million over four years, describing them as the most significant since the Family Court was established.

The minister said on Saturday that will still be the case - although they will no longer bring about quite the same cost savings.

"It will still save money but the fact is, that hasn't been the main focus. My main focus has been the management and relationship management regarding children.

"It should always be in the best interests of children - that's the compounding and main issue."

Ms Collins said her officials will also recommend that judges be able to direct counselling before mediation.

The cost of running the Family Court has ballooned by 70% in the past six years - and that needs to change, she said.

The Law Society is delighted the Government has backed away from parts of its proposed changes to the system.

Judith Collins says her officials have listened to criticism from Family Court judges and have now recommended that lawyers be allowed earlier in the process.

Law Society spokesperson on family law Garry Collin says that's great news - and he'd like to congratulate the minister.

However, he says the real winners are those who struggle to cope with the Family Court because of their position and emotion and they deserve the right to have a lawyer during mediation.

The select committee is due to report back in June.