This report recommends a raft of changes to strengthen and connect family justice services, including the Family Court, so that children, parents and their whānau are treated with dignity and respect, listened to, and supported, to make the best decisions for them.
It proposes the development of a joined-up family justice service, to be called Te Korowai Ture ā-Whānau, to ensure that processes are no longer separated into in and out of court. This service will form a korowai: protecting, supporting and empowering children, their parents, and their whānau as they work through parenting and guardianship issues.
In August 2018, the Minister of Justice, Hon. Andrew Little, appointed us “to consider the 2014 family justice reforms as they relate to assisting parents/guardians to decide or resolve disputes about parenting arrangements or guardianship matters …”
Our terms of reference required us to consult widely in our examination of the effectiveness of the 2014 reforms. Family justice services involve children and young people, parents, caregivers, guardians, grandparents and other whānau, often when they are at their most vulnerable. We are deeply appreciative of those who were prepared to share their experiences with us. We acknowledge that for some it took considerable courage, fearing that even talking to us in confidence could be used against them.
What we learnt from children, parents and whānau was reinforced by our engagement with those who work in the community. We heard from Māori, Pacific peoples and new migrant communities; we were told about barriers to access to justice for children and adults with a disability, and about the impact of poverty.
Those who work in family justice services – judges, lawyers, mediators, psychologists, family counsellors, workshop facilitators, court and other Ministry of Justice staff – contributed generously, as did their professional organisations. We drew on the expertise of the office of the Children’s Commissioner; on the research of academics, both domestic and international; and on the experiences of other countries. We were fortunate to have access to the preliminary results of a major study by the University of Otago Children’s Issues Centre, and we commissioned further research by UMR, a specialist market research company. An expert reference group and a secretariat established by the Ministry of Justice have provided us with outstanding support.
What we have heard, seen, read and researched has convinced us that elements of the 2014 reforms must be changed. But law reform alone will not address the myriad of issues that undermine confidence in family justice services, nor reduce delays that can be so damaging for children and young people.