Family justice review - what you need to know


By Keri Morris

Final submissions on the consultation document Strengthening the Family Justice System have now closed. We now wait with hope to see what the Independent Panel reviewing the 2014 family justice reforms final recommendations to Minister Little will be.

About the review

This review is being undertaken by an Independent Panel which is led by former chief human rights commissioner Rosslyn Noonan, recently appointed District Court Judge La-Verne King and family law expert Chris Dellabarca. Following an initial consultation round in 2018 where proposals from over 400 submitters were received, the Panel outlined its preliminary thinking and sought further feedback on specific issues through a second round of consultation. The Panel is due to release its final recommendations at the end of May. 

What is the Panel considering?

The Panel has set the vision for a ‘Family Justice Service’ that is woven into a korowai that brings together the different services available to strengthen and support all those who need support in making decisions for their children. It is clear from the consultation questions that the Panel will be considering the best approach to weave together these services and in turn make it easier for families. Under the new proposals, the Family Justice Service would place a greater emphasis on the availability of legal advice for all.  In terms of specifics, the Panel noted that although children are at the heart of what we all do, there are a number of issues causing the system to fail to focus on the welfare and best interests of children. Moving forward, the Panel wants to see:

  • more targeted counselling available
  • a greater focus on Family Dispute Resolution
  • a change in how we respond to tamariki and Māori whānau
  • greater accommodation of people with disabilities
  • a better flow between the in-and out-of-court space
  • the establishment of two new roles in the family court
  • a review of several areas of the lawyer for child and psychologist reports
  • a review of costs with regards to Family Dispute Resolution and cost contribution orders.

Further opportunities

The document also puts emphasis on the fact that families find the family justice process confusing and “highly chaotic.” It proposes that the Ministry of Justice develops an information strategy and public awareness campaign, including a dedicated website. There is an opportunity here to take this thinking a step further by providing digital online services.  While people may go to the Family Court for advice on what to do following a separation or when involved in a parenting dispute, the first thing many people do is to head online and go to Google.

Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, in his recently published book Shaping the Future of the Fourth Industrial Revolution writes:

"Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies are truly disruptive - they upend existing ways of sensing, calculating, organizing, acting and delivering. They represent entirely new ways of creating value for organizations and citizens. They will, over time, transform all the systems we take for granted today - from the way we produce and transport goods and services, to the way we communicate, the way we collaborate, and the way we experience the world around us."

Examples of Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies include artificial intelligence; robotics; big data; virtual, augmented and mixed reality; distributed ledger technologies (e.g. Blockchain); the internet of things; additive manufacturing (e.g. 3D printing); and biotechnologies. While some of these may sound futuristic, many of these technologies are widely in use and could have applications in the family justice arena. Is the family justice system poised to leverage what now seems to be inevitable change? 

As technology-driven change continues to accelerate, its impact will affect all areas of our lives. People accessing legal and mediation services will expect the same online experience that they get from other service providers. This expectation will continue to rise as more and more technology-change is driven into our everyday lives. To keep up with changing expectations about how to access services online, there is a need to engage in regular environment scans to ensure the online experience offered to separated parents aligns with other online service experiences. If we fail to do this then we increase the risk of our services being disrupted in a similar way to how Uber has disrupted the taxi industry.  The downside of living at this time of exponential change is that many successful practices of the past no longer work. 

Overall

While there are certainly further opportunities here to leverage technology innovations, for the most part it’s good news for families and for family justice professionals. The latest proposals aren’t so much about revolution as evolution — an enhancement rather than a repudiation of the 2014 raft of reforms, which looked to change the perception that the Family Court is more about winners and losers than trained professionals assisting parents and caregivers to reach agreement and move forward with their lives in the best interests of the children involved. It is encouraging to see the Panel’s vision for a Family Justice Service that is woven into a korowai that brings together the different services available to strengthen and support families – this is something that families certainly need and that we, as family justice professionals, can certainly facilitate.