Lawyers fight cuts to legal aid

By Sandra Conchie


The Government's plan to slash access to legal aid as part of its planned overhaul of Family Court system has come under fire from a group of Tauranga family court lawyers.

If the Bill becomes law it will restrict the number of cases coming before the court, legal aid will be harder to obtain, and it will encourage parents to resolve matters themselves.

One of the key provisions of the Bill is to establish a Family Disputes Resolution process to encourage separating parents to resolve their custody disputes out of court.

It could see parents paying about $900 to take part in a family dispute resolution process.

But senior Tauranga family court lawyer Mary-Ann McCarty, speaking on behalf of a group of concerned lawyers in the city, said the shake-up of the Family Court was "absolutely frightening" and short-sighted.

"Every other major court change has been made after a pilot-project trial period, but here we could see a Family Court system, which has been in place for 30 years, ended with the stroke of a pen.

"The Government, which seems hellbent on saving money, has forgotten the human element. This is not about us [lawyers], it's about the most vulnerable people in our community, our children, and other users of the court," she said

Ms McCarty said the bill took away legal safeguards for children at the centre of family proceedings.

"We accept there has been a huge blowout in legal aid costs but simply throwing the baby out with the bath water is not the answer,"she said.

Andrew Little, Labour's Justice spokesman, who met the group of lawyers this week, opposed the Bill.

One senior Tauranga family court lawyer said the review was "absolutely frightening", as it could leave vulnerable parties, particularly children, without legal protection.

Mr Little said far from providing a better process for parents separating and protecting vulnerable parties going through one of the most stressful times in their lives, the bill did the reverse.

"The expectation that parents will be able to, with the assistance of a single facilitator and without the benefit of legal advice, happily come together to settle their differences and quickly reach an agreement is unrealistic. Particularly when separating parents will each have a different view about what was best for their child," he said.

Mr Little said under the system only about 15 per cent of cases required a court hearing. "There is no doubt in my mind the changes are driven by fiscal considerations, and the Government has forgotten the human factors and complexities involved in settling custody disputes," he said.

Justice Minister Judith Collins said the cost of running the Family Court was rising and unsustainable.

Since July 2005, there had been a 63 per cent increase in expenditure for the court to $137 million-plus, but application numbers remained relatively stable and cases were taking longer on average to conclude. The Bill has gone through its second reading.


The 59 Family Courts in New Zealand deal with a range of issues, including:


Care of children by separating parents

Care and protection issues from abuse or neglect

Child abduction

Domestic violence

Paternity issues

Relationship property

Separation and divorce dissolution

- Bay of Plenty Times

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