Family Court lawyer Gareth Bodle has had enough. After nearly 20 years of appearing on behalf of men, women and children in courts in the Wairarapa, Auckland and Northland, he is walking away this month.
There are personal reasons, he says, but he's also worn down by a system that doesn't work. "I'm just fed up with not being able to make headway for my clients."
Bodle has one case where the couple separated in 2014 and his client is still waiting for access to relationship property. Although he's done with Family Court work, he won't give up law altogether. He'll use his expertise elsewhere, possibly helping refugees, he says.
Bodle contacted the Herald after reading its investigation into major issues faced by Kiwi couples trying to resolve complex property relationship disputes after separation. They are hampered by the outdated Property (Relationships) Act 1976 still to be amended despite a 2019 Law Commission report saying it was no longer fit for purpose, and a "broken" Family Court system that causes years of anguish and chews up vast amounts of money to resolve property settlements.
A failed system
Kerikeri maths tutor Heather Mackay also contacted the Herald saying she has been inspired to challenge the "idiocy" of the Family Court which she says is having a detrimental effect on her daughter and grandchildren.
"Separation alone is traumatic, an acrimonious separation is even worse. But having the Family Court involved is certainly an eye-opener into how failed a system can be," she says.
She sees one of those failings as an inability to make firm decisions, leaving matters unresolved.
"The rest of us have to make decisions all the time and stand by them."
She'd like to see less interference from the courts and lawyers in disputes which can often make family issues worse. Less paperwork and process would help, she says, and set times by which matters need to be dealt with.
"And don't allow the court system to play out to one side. It seems like they're bending over backwards for the wrong person."
The Family Court is supposed to be working for families but she doesn't see it that way.
"They're causing destruction. If they weren't there at all I think everything would be better."
The process nearly "destroyed" her daughter who is now left with a $24,000 legal bill she can't afford to pay.
Mackay and her daughter plan to write to MP for Northland, Willow-Jean Prime and hope to arrange a meeting.
"Who knows," she says, "we may become the tipping point or at least be heard above the irritating noise of the Family Court inadequacies."
Mackay says she anticipates a fob off and more frustration but neither she nor her daughter can cope with another day of "utter disorganisation and idiocy".
Bodle echoes the same sentiment. Possibly because he's unlikely to be appearing in court for much longer, he's prepared to speak out. Take some of the more recent Family Court judicial appointments, he says.
By the court's very nature, those judges deal with serious issues - child abuse, domestic violence, custody battles - and couples deep in battle over relationship property.
Society and the Government are quite rightly concerned about social issues, he says, but as a result, judicial appointments in the Family Court are predominantly coming from strong care and protection backgrounds.
Dealing with domestic trauma takes a different set of skills to resolving complex property disputes involving discovery, trusts and commercial skulduggery.
He knows of a case where a woman's ex-husband sold the family home without her knowledge and sent the money overseas, shortly before he also left on a flight. The woman, he says, was left with nothing but not before her lawyer tried desperately to stop it happening.
The lawyer asked for full disclosure from the law firm that transferred the proceeds to a foreign exchange company which then moved it overseas. He then applied for an order to issue a warrant for the arrest of the ex-husband if he tried to leave the county.
But none of it worked. The judge refused the applications, instead giving the other side a chance to come up with the money. By then it was too late.
Judges lack commercial experience
"It's a good example of the problems in the court. We need better qualified commercial judges in that relationship property court. And the willingness to act quicker," he says.
"The District Court threshold for commercial cases is $200,000. We do relationship property that can involve tens of millions. They (some judges) do not understand commercial law. We can stop a kid getting out of the country in a matter of hours but money can move in an instant."
Lack of action by judges sends the wrong signals, he says. "It's just a message that if you want to take the risk, you can rort the system."
Young lawyers are told to be brave and courageous in front of judges on behalf of their clients, he says.
"Well judges have to be too. When you have people with all this money at stake it's their whole livelihood."
He, like others in the industry, pays tribute to the Family Court judges who preside over issues across multiple acts.
"The judges work harder than any other judges in other jurisdictions. All the reading they do and all the bullshit and lies that are told."
But it's those lies that he thinks people should not be allowed to get away with in court. He wants more lawyers, and judges, to consider using section 16 of the Contempt of Court Act 2019 which carries a penalty of up to six months in jail or a $25,000 fine for non-compliance.
"We have a code now and they [judges] should be enforcing it. We have the opportunity as lawyers to make applications in ways we couldn't when it was a common-law jurisdiction. People should be nailed for lying.
"If you are ordered to return the money from overseas to a New Zealand bank account and you don't, that is contempt of court. Plain and simple. And people should know that they can end up in jail."
And associates who help hide assets should also be charged with contempt of court.
A former organic farmer, Bodle qualified as a lawyer in his 40s, cutting his teeth as a Family Court lawyer in the Wairarapa, much of it on legal aid before moving to Hobsonville. He's seen everything: child abuse, violence, custody battles, couples fighting over relationship property.
He's done his fair share of legal aid for $134 an hour. "I charge $400 for my private clients. If I was in Shortland St [Auckland] I'd probably charge $650 to $800."
He describes legal aid lawyers as "extraordinarily overworked, understaffed and underpaid". It's ironic that some of the country's most vulnerable children and adults living in poverty, violence and exposed to drugs are represented by the most underpaid lawyers in the judicial system, he says.
"The court is totally screwed but a hell of a lot of good people just give their guts."