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Report of the Principal Family Court Judge, Judge Laurence Ryan

Children paramount in a court negotiating change

This is my last contribution as Principal Family Court Judge to the Annual Report. In the five years I have led the Family Court bench, family law underwent a review which culminated in a number of legislative reforms in 2014. Most significant were the processes around cases to do with care arrangements for children.

Given the focus in the last few years on vulnerable children, there were significant changes in the area of care and protection as well. This led to the establishment of a new government department, Oranga Tamariki, followed by the introduction of legislation intended to better identify and support vulnerable children and their caregivers.

Also, there has been increased attention given to New Zealand’s appalling family violence statistics. Greater support has been, and continues to be, made available for victims of family violence and their children. Now we are about to see a further review of family law, examining among other things, the impact of the 2014 reforms. Undoubtedly, there will be further changes ahead.

Family Court judges have to constantly keep abreast of new laws and processes, while continuing to ensure that the welfare and best interests of children remain the paramount consideration. All Family Court judges are aware of this mandate, having been experienced family lawyers prior to appointment.

It is very telling that the issues before the Family Court are some of the most emotional, personal and sensitive issues that come into the justice system. The court’s work directly affects everyday aspects of a person’s life. For that reason, Family Court judges will encourage people as much as possible to resolve their matters outside the court process, to try and reduce the emotional burden of litigation.

Image of a view into Family Court Room 1 through the door that is slightly ajar.The scope of what Family Court judges see day-to¬day differs significantly to what I think are general misconceptions about the Family Court. Often people think of adult problems such as relationship breakups when they think of the Family Court. In fact, the breadth of the Family Court’s jurisdiction is much wider, and it deals with many different “family” matters.

Because the jurisdiction is wide, the work is varied. Family Court judges must be skilled in a variety of legal areas and must also be able to comprehend the unique complexities of individual families.

All Family Court judges continue to receive Continuing Legal Education and training in, among other things, child-focused dispute resolution and the dynamics of family violence, with its impact on victims and children who have witnessed family violence.

“New Zealand’s Family Court compares most favourably with other Family Courts internationally in the timely disposal of cases”

Family Court proceedings often concern children. More than half the applications it receives relate to care arrangements while the second biggest part of its work relates to children in need of care and protection.

Image of a Family Court court room.Despite what else is going on in a proceeding, the welfare and best interests of the child are the court’s paramount consideration. When a court is deciding parenting arrangements for a child after their parents have separated, it is not the interests of the parents that the court will prioritise. It will decide what arrangements are best for the child, and will take into account the child’s views in doing so. In care and protection proceedings children must have a lawyer represent them, and in Care of Children Act proceedings, children can have their own legal representation if the court determines it necessary.

Section 5 of the Family Court Act 1980 provides that a person shall not be appointed a Family Court judge unless he or she is, or is eligible to be, a District Court judge and he or she is by reason of his or her training, experience and personality suitable to deal with matters of family law.

Image of Principal Family Court Judge, Judge L Ryan.

"It is very telling that the issues before the Family Court are some of the most emotional, personal and sensitive issues that come into the justice system"

All Family Court judges undertake their role assiduously and conscientiously, always endeavouring to do justice in an objective even-handed way with children’s safety and wellbeing at the forefront of the decision-making. Notwithstanding this commitment, Family Court judges continue to come under unfair and unacceptable personal attacks from pressure groups and individuals to the extent that some have been subjected to physical violence and their homes have been picketed. This unwarranted intrusion into the private lives of judges, and into the lives of their families, is absolutely unjustified from any viewpoint.

New Zealand’s Family Court compares most favourably with other Family Courts internationally in the timely disposal of cases. As at May of this year the median age of defended applications under the Care of Children Act at disposal was 40 weeks, and applications under the Domestic Violence Act for protection orders averaged 24 weeks to disposal.

The Family Court judiciary continue to look at new initiatives to assist in management of an increasing workload. 

Some examples are making better use of cultural report writers and lay advocates in cases to do with the care and protection and care arrangements for children.

The judges have always been enthusiastic about adopting new and improved processes, such as single-judge case management of complex Property (Relationships) Act cases.

During my time as Principal Judge, I have witnessed progressive changes to the Family Court bench. In the past five years there has been a significant shift in the gender balance with a notable increase in women judges. In November 2012, 22 Family warranted judges were women and 31 were men. As at June 2018, 27 were women and 32 men.

Family Court judges continue to remain committed to serving the community in the best way possible. I have been extremely proud to be their leader over the past five and-a-half years.

Image of Family Law Legislation book on a desk.