The Principal Family Court Judge has publicly slammed a new women's advocacy group's criticism of the system and said their "combative debate" is not helpful to the victims they claim to try to help.

Judge Laurence Ryan issued a statement this afternoon lambasting a report by the Backbone Collective, set up in March.

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The Collective is an independent body aiming to take action against domestic and sexual violence towards women.


Founded by Ruth Herbert and Deborah Mackenzie, the Collective is a national coalition of survivors of violence and also aims to act as a Family Court watchdog.

Earlier this month they said a survey of members revealed "widespread failures" and dysfunction throughout the Family Court system.

In its first watchdog report, the Collective claimed there were major shortfalls in Family Court legislation, voiced concerns over the quality of judges, a lack of monitoring of the system and the revictimisation of women and children.

Judge Ryan today hit back at the Collective's report.

It is extremely rare for a member of the judiciary to wade into a public debate.

"In recent weeks criticism of the Family Court has been aired publicly based on anecdotal experiences of a sample of people who have sought the intervention of the court to help resolve disputes in their personal relationships," Judge Ryan said.

"Some of the accounts contain serious allegations about the safety of the Family Court."

Judge Ryan said about 60,000 applications were lodged with the Family Court every year and the Collective had "chosen to highlight its concerns by selecting 10 court users to formulate a long series of questions based on their experiences"

"It now demands that every question be answered," he said.

"Many of the questions addressed to this office relate to matters either already being actively considered by Parliament around family violence, or which have been dealt with by Parliament relatively recently.

"Unfortunately a number of the questions the collective now wants answered are premised on erroneous or flawed interpretations of, and assumptions about, the current legal framework in which the Family Court operates."

Ruth Herbert (left) and Deborah MacKenzie, founders of the Backbone Collective. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Ruth Herbert (left) and Deborah MacKenzie, founders of the Backbone Collective. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Judge Ryan addressed a number of claims from the Collective.

His full statement is below.

He took particular umbrage at criticisms of Family Court judges.

"As the Principal Family Court Judge, it particularly concerns me that Family Court judges are being painted unfairly as uncaring and unprofessional and as putting people in harm's way," he said.

"This risks undermining public confidence in the courts and the impartial administration of justice, especially among people who may desperately need the court's help during a distressing period of their lives.

"I am proud of the increasingly holistic approach Family Court judges are taking to the complex matters they must consider, based on ongoing education, professional development, and peer review.

"This is helping families find workable arrangements that aim to protect the most vulnerable and help people to restore their lives."

Judge Ryan said judges took an oath to "do right to all manner of people after the laws and usages of New Zealand, without fear or favour, affection or ill will".

"Family Court judges are deeply committed to honouring this oath," he said.

"It is understandable that not all people who are enduring broken, painful or damaged relationships and who come to court seeking resolution or justice will go away satisfied.

"But a combative debate that pits the judiciary against those who rely on the court's help, guidance and intervention is not conducive to improving outcomes, especially for children."

He said for those reasons it was "not appropriate for the judiciary to respond in the way the Collective seeks".

"Nor do I intend to make any further public comment on the Collective's campaign and allegations made therein."

The Collective's members said they were "surprised and alarmed" at Judge Ryan's comments.

"We are not entering into combative debate as Judge Ryan suggests, we are providing a safe way for women to tell those in authority how the system responds to them when they experience violence and abuse," the Collective said in a statement.

"We thought the Family Court would want to know that currently many women feel they are put in more danger when the Family Court is involved. Surely when systems aren't working well and safely those in charge want to know how to fix it?"

Feedback since the report was released showed they were on the right path, the Collective said.

"Women are messaging and emailing constantly telling us horrific stories of abuse from the Family Court, stories that we think would horrify the New Zealand public."

The Collective is running a survey of women who have experienced violence and abuse and have been to the Family Court. So far 310 women have responded, with some 61 per cent saying they did not feel safer after being through the court.

More data from the survey will be released over the coming weeks.

Women who had been through the Family Court were the experts in how the system responded and how it needed to change, the Collective said.

"We genuinely hope that those in authority will see the Backbone Collective as a route to valuable insight and experience which is otherwise not available to them."