The Independent Panel looking at Family Court reforms of the last Government has recommended reversing the main reforms and says a more "joined-up family justice service" is needed.

It says the new service should be called Te Korowai Ture a-Whānau, it should be child and whānau centred, and be "timely, safe, responsive and accessible."

"It will provide for diversity, understand the impact of family violence, and will be cohesive, collaborative and cost effective."

The panel says children should have a stronger role and voice in decisions about them.

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The Family Court was criticized as being monocultural and not fit for purpose by the chairwoman of the panel, former Chief Human Rights Commissioner Rosslyn Noonan.

Accepting the report at Parliament today, Justice Minister Andrew Little said any parent going through a separation process should have access to good advice alongside them but that was getting harder and harder to get.

Noon said holistic change to the family justice system was a matter of some urgency.
She said the same issues had been raised in 1987 and she was shocked that so little had changed.

"We cannot continue with a monocultural Family Court because it is damaging to children and young people, it is damaging to families."

She said there were people with goodwill in the system trying to doing their best.
"But they are trying to do their best in a system that is no longer fit for purpose.

"It is end up with children being even more damaged by the system because of the extent to which it encourages conflict between family members."

The report recommends changes to recognise Māori in the family justice including:
• phasing in the presumption that a Māori child will be represented by a Māori lawyer;
• developing a pilot tikanga-based Family Court;
• providing adequate funding for culturally appropriate family dispute resolution processes;
• appointing some Māori Land Court judges to sit in the Family court until sufficient Māori judges are appointed to the Family Court;
• Requiring all new Family court judges to spend a week observing Māori Land Court proceedings.
• Ensuring the Family Court has access to mana whenua (the relevant iwi of the area)

The panel also recommends reversing the main reforms introduced in 2014 including allowing a party to apply to the Family Court for a parenting or guardianship order without prior attendance at a "parenting-through-separation" course.

It also recommends allowing a party to apply to the Family Court for a parenting or guardianship order without requiring prior attendance at the family dispute resolution service.

The 2014 reforms were introduced by Judith Collins in 2014 when she was Justice Minister in a bid to prevent long and costly delays in the court for resolving such over child care and contact arrangements.

Judith Collins' reforms which took effect in 2014 were intended to focus on out-of-court resolutions by cutting out lawyers from a mandatory dispute resolution service. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Judith Collins' reforms which took effect in 2014 were intended to focus on out-of-court resolutions by cutting out lawyers from a mandatory dispute resolution service. Photo / Mark Mitchell

It established the family dispute resolution service without lawyers as a mandatory step in trying to get separating parents to resolve conflicts before advancing to Family Court proceedings.

It also expanded the "parenting through separation" course and made it mandatory for many applicants before filing proceedings in the Family court.

Little said National's changes were meant to make things easier for families at a difficult time but they had had the opposite effect.

"Cases are taking longer to resolve and many family members involved in the court processes say they are not well supported."

Little said he would provide a meaningful response to the report in due course and had asked officials to develop a workable programme for change.

But he acknowledged that the current system did not meet the needs of Māori.

"What this report highlights is the need for the Family Court when it is operating to be more response to and sensitive to te ao Māori [the Maori world].

"You would expect in New Zealand in the 21st century, you need a Family Court equipped to deal certainly with Māori and other ethnicities as well in a way that is culturally appropriate and sensitive, without diminishing the basic legal principles you want applying in our version of family law," Little said.

"The political challenge is to see that happen and where necessary give that very clear signal through legislation."