The people of New Zealand can be confident that children and families are at the front of the minds of an independent panel on family justice based on the panel's first report released last month.
Led by former Chief Human Rights Commissioner Rosslyn Noonan, and comprising family law experts La Verne King and Chris Dellabarca, the panel is looking at changes that should be made to ensure the welfare and best interests of the children are paramount when disputes about their care are being settled.
As part of its review of the 2014 family justice reforms, the panel has released some notable draft proposals, not least those that place a strong emphasis on family dispute resolution.
While submissions on the ultimate changes remain open until March 1, we now have a strong sense of the likely direction of the final report that will be completed in June.
Justice Minister Little, for one, will be pleased with the progress. Little has long been concerned at what he says has been a huge increase in the number of urgent "without notice" applications that have to be put before Family Court judges.
"I am concerned that families and children are losing out as a result of not receiving adequate advice and support during this distressing time," he noted when launching the panel. "The last Government removed access to lawyers in many cases and I'm concerned about how this and the other changes have impacted on access to justice."
The consultation document, Strengthening the Family Justice System, emphasises the paradoxical challenge of supporting parents as they both go their own way while also remaining fully involved together as parents.
Under the new proposals, the family justice system would place a greater emphasis on the availability of legal advice for all.
Specifically, the panel wants to see more targeted counselling available, more people having access easily to legal representation, and more specifics on how the court deals with applications.
More broadly, it would like to see recognition of Te Ao Māori in the system, greater accommodation of people with disabilities and a meaningful place in the process for the voice of the child.
For the most part, the latest proposals aren't so much about revolution as evolution — an enhancement rather than a repudiation of the last raft of reforms, which looked to change the perception that the Family Court is more about winners and losers than trained professionals helping people settle on mutually acceptable outcomes.
The reforms of 2014 also recognised that unmediated courtroom dramas can be painful and tough for the kids, which in turn creates its own social problems and costs down the track.
So how would the new rules play out?
Under the latest proposal, a hypothetical Sam or Jamie would meet with a lawyer or the family justice services co-ordinator. Within 24 hours, the dispute resolution process process could begin, the first step being an assessment to confirm that it is the right process for the family.
After engaging with the second parent, an accredited representative will meet with the children to ensure their voices will be heard in the mediation.
Parents can have their lawyers attend mediation with them.
Within six weeks parents will have completed family mediation and have a plan to move forward.
The mediator has the option of recommending parties attend preparation for mediation and any further counselling. Where agreement is reached, the parents will have a simple defined process for making an agreement into a court order.
Where parents haven't agreed, there will be a seamless process for the parents to access assistance from the court.
The total cost of family dispute resolution for a parent who is not eligible for a free government service is $448.50 (and wholly subsidised for those who are eligible). The panel are considering government funding for all.
Obviously, as somebody involved in the provision of family dispute resolution, I have an interest in the outcome of this review. But all New Zealanders, in one way or another, have an interest in this. And many ought to be breathing a sigh of relief that evolution rather than revolution appears to be the watchword.
We support the panel's vision for a family justice system that is woven into a korowai that brings together the different services available to strengthen and support for families.
Dialogue Contributions are welcome and should be 700-800 words. Send your submission to firstname.lastname@example.org. Text may be edited and used in digital formats as well as on paper.
Keri Morris is client director of family services for the dispute resolution firm FairWay.