Cyclone Gabrielle

How does family justice respond to ground zero resilience?

By Will Story for the Autumn edition of the Family Advocate

Earthquakes. Pandemics. Flash floods. Landslides. Loss of lives. Loss of livelihoods. Loss of possessions. Destroyed homes. Power cuts. Communication cuts. Loss of internet. Destroyed crops. Disconnected and divided communities. Misplaced tangata whenua. Widespread catastrophe.

Aotearoa New Zealand has seen it all in recent times. In the midst of the pandemic, New Zealanders regularly heard through the media that resilience was at an all-time low. The wake of the recent floods, both in Auckland and then closely followed by those caused by Cyclone Gabrielle which brought with it widespread devastation to parts of the North Island, causes us to ponder whether the all-time low was called too early. A magnitude 6.3 earthquake felt across the lower North Island hot on the heels of the floods prompted Prime Minister Hipkins to peer out the window for a plague of locusts – a biblical metaphor for the series of blows inflicted on us by Mother Nature. Just when we felt the worst was behind us with covid, our nationwide resilience takes another traumatising blow.

It is well known that natural disasters, and those caused by humankind, invoke a trauma response from most individuals. With climate change, the incidence of trauma responses is likely to only increase. With trauma comes emotion, and emotional, often desperate responses. It is therefore hardly surprising that in the Hawke’s Bay and Tairawhiti regions (both severely impacted by Gabrielle) we saw incidences of looting and the Police Commissioner also reporting an increase of 60% in incidents of family harm. While the statistics are shocking, we have seen similar patterns previously, for example in Christchurch following the earthquakes of 2011.

Lawyers and mediators alike are particularly skilled at problem solving, yet one can’t help but feel a huge sense of helplessness, and we aren’t alone. Unless you are in one of the flood affected regions, being on the end of a shovel or wheelbarrow simply isn’t an option. Yet we can help, and our help will make a difference. As family justice professionals, we are honoured and privileged to have the skills and training to assist families broken by these devastating, natural events.

What can we do? In the Family Dispute Resolution (FDR) world, we can expect to see some escalated conflict surface. With families displaced from their homes and cut off from their wider family support networks, it is likely that separated families will need to review their parenting plans both in the short term and medium term. We might also expect to see the pressures of the cyclone contributing to family breakdowns and separations in the not so distant future. Facing the realities of these regions will be challenging for our mediators, who are naturally empathetic, but they are well equipped to do so.

Preparation for Mediation (PFM) is one part of the FDR package which can be beneficial in situations like these, where parties are experiencing heightened emotions and stress. Realistically, parties who are under such emotional strain are often not ready for the kōrero which mediation brings. A PFM provider holds accreditation as both a mediator and a counsellor. They meet with people one on one to focus on their needs and what could help them to bring their best selves to mediation (identifying any obstacles to unhindered participation) and generally get the most from the mediation experience. Depending on their circumstances this could be methods of regulating emotions, behavioural change or simply providing additional communication tools. Taking a holistic approach, Preparation for Mediation allows parents to reflect on themselves, on their former partner, and what they would like to achieve through mediation. Following traumatic experiences, having a plan for the future is critical.  PFM and FDR mediation provide parties with the tools which they need to navigate co-parenting conversations through normal and tough times.  

In terms of mediation itself, these families will have unique needs and challenges. For many affected by the recent flooding, schools have yet to fully re-open. Many  whānau have been displaced and forced to find emergency accommodation. Arrangements that parents previously agreed to around children’s routines (including extra-curricular and contact changeovers) will be up in the air. Parents and communities who have spent days, and in some cases weeks, clearing flood debris and cleaning must return to work. Who will look after the children if school isn’t back yet? There are so many uncertainties for people to work through and wider whānau will play a critical role. FDR provides an opportunity for wider whānau to be a part of the discussion.   

And then there are the relationship property aspects to consider. The minefield of insurance and working with EQC and private insurers is likely to place additional stress on families. In some of the flood affected regions, such as the Esk Valley in Napier, some serious questions are being asked as to the viability of rebuilding communities. What happens to EQC and private insurer pay outs if couples separate under the strain of all of this? How do families rebuild and recover if they did not have insurance in the first place? There is a plethora of issues that are likely to come to the fore as communities face the rebuild phase.

The last place families who are suffering from these catastrophic natural events need to be is Court. Thankfully in Aotearoa New Zealand we have an alternative which works. At Fair Way we are fortunate to have a network of skilled practitioners capable of providing both FDR and relationship property mediations. Our people are here to help as best as they can so if you know of a client or family who may benefit from our mediation, please reach out to us.

About the author

Will Story BA LLB ( is an experienced family lawyer (not practising) and Operations Manager of Family Services at Fair Way Resolution Limited.