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Report of the Principal Family Court Judge



— Learning from the past when change is in the air

Later this year, the Family Court’s triennial conference had been scheduled to explore the theme of “2020 Vision”, an ode to learning from the Family Court's past and applying those lessons to the future.

The COVID-19 pandemic meant the conference was postponed. However, these lessons were not, and right through the 2019-2020 year they have not been wasted.

In the months since the 2020 Budget was delivered, we have seen the beginning of a significant change with the much-needed investment of $62 million in the Family Court.

Image of Judge Moran, head and shoulders.

Momentum accelerated in January, when Attorney-General David Parker announced the appointment of 21 new District Court Judges, 12 to hold Family Court warrants. The appointment of an additional Family Court Judge was announced in May.

The Attorney-General said at the time that "it is important that the judiciary reflects the make-up of the community it serves”. The appointments to the Family Court certainly reflect that message. Six of the new judges are of Māori descent and speak Te reo Māori. Ten are women, meaning that more than half of the judges of the Family Court are now women.

Judge Moran with Judge Kiriana Tan after her swearing-in ceremony in Hamilton.

Judge Michelle Howard-Sagar takes her judicial oath at Whanganui District Court.

Judge Rachel Paul swears her judicial oath on Wairaka Marae in Whakatāne, one of 13 new Family Court judges sworn in during 2019/20.

The appointment of so many new judges, and from such diverse backgrounds, also made for an intense but joyous period of formal swearing-in ceremonies.

The valuable insights that all the new judges bring to the Bench will be fully harnessed. These appointments reflect an awareness of the need to ensure Family Court judges are culturally competent, particularly in tikanga Māori. Specialised tikanga sessions have been included in the ongoing Family Court judges' induction training that has taken place this year.

To further support this, the first phase of the 2020 Budget Family Justice Reforms includes provision for a new role in the Family Court, that of Family Justice Liaison Officers. I envisage that these officers will provide a conduit between the community and the court.

I have also been working alongside the Ministry of Justice to recruit Lay Advocates for the Family Court. Lay Advocates play an important role linking tamariki, whānau, iwi and the wider community. They provide valuable cultural insight for the court by tracing a child’s whakapapa. The circumstances of each case must be understood in the particular cultural context to ensure the most effective and appropriate outcomes are achieved for each child.

In July, at the close of the reporting year, the Family Court (Supporting Families in Court) Act 2020 came into force. This Act repealed s 7A of the Care of Children Act 2004, restoring the right to legal representation for parties from the outset of Care of Children proceedings and enabling eligible parties to access legal aid.

These changes counter one of the most demonstrably negative effects of the 2014 Family Justice Reforms, which removed the right to legal representation in the Family Court unless an application was on a without-out notice (urgent) basis. This produced unprecedented numbers of without notice applications, resulting in large backlogs and aged caseloads in Care of Children Act cases.

“These changes counter one of the most demonstrably negative effects of the 2014 family justice reforms … .”

With the repeal of s 7A, and the return of lawyers to the court, I hope to see backlogs reducing, enabling us to expeditiously discharge the Family Court’s business.

The second phase of the 2020 reforms will include  implementing further change based on the recommendations of the Independent Panel's 2019 review, particularly focused on strengthening the voice of the child in proceedings.

It is an exciting time to be in the Family Court. Transformation is here, and progress is imminent. With change in the air, there is a strong focus on continuing legal education for the judiciary and upskilling in cultural competence. This is set to continue, ideally with regional education to increase knowledge of local history.

As always, the Family Court judges, whether new or experienced, are committed to serving their communities and providing access to justice. I am excited to lead the Family Court in this vital work over the coming year.

COVID-19 and the Family Court

As the second largest division of the District Court, it was essential that the Family Court remained open during the period of COVID-19 restrictions, and accessible to those who needed it most.

Prior to lockdown, significant work was undertaken to identify likely priority areas and adapt processes to align with COVID-19 restrictions. Protocols were designed as required under each of the alert levels.

The Alert Level 4 protocol covered matters with statutory timeframes and those involving vulnerable parties such as welfare guardianship or property orders.

Almost all hearings were conducted remotely. In Alert Level 3 this extended to include scheduled work, where possible. Alert Level 2 expanded again to undertake all previously scheduled work. Some matters were able to be heard in person, with strict physical distancing enforced.

Throughout the lockdown period, particular attention was paid to Family Violence proceedings as there was a fear that violence would increase during a time of heightened stress, with parties in continued close proximity.

For a number of reasons, including the fact that partners subject to family violence were locked down with the perpetrators of violence, and lawyers and other supports became more difficult to access, the number of protection order applications decreased significantly, though they saw a steep increase following lockdown.

Mental health proceedings remained a priority, with AVL or telephone utilised until and during Alert Level 2. The Family Court also provided guidance throughout the Alert Levels in response to issues which became apparent, in particular, relating to shared care agreements.

Image of young family silhouetted in beach sunset

On top of the domestic toll of COVID-19 restrictions, there have been wider international issues that have necessitated a response. This included devising a protocol which sets out a temporary process for parents and their babies who have been born via surrogates overseas and are unable to travel home. Instead of subjecting parents to the delay of obtaining an international passport in the country of birth, they can be issued with an adoption order via AVL, enabling the child to obtain a New Zealand passport.

This protocol integrated electronic filing which was permitted under the District Court’s COVID-19 protocol.

Image of a father with two small children