A column by the University of Auckland's Alison Cleland could have misled readers into thinking our proposed reforms to the family justice system would leave children, families and vulnerable people worse off.

Cleland says without the expertise of a lawyer or other specialist, vulnerable children facing dangerous and violent situations would not get the help they need, and their views would not be heard. That is simply wrong.

One of the lessons I learned from my 20 years as a lawyer is that going to court is not the best way to work out care arrangements for children. Nor is it the best way to sort out a relationship break-up.

There are no winners in the Family Court, except perhaps the many lawyers, counsellors and specialists who benefit from pitting parents against each other.


Our proposed reforms to the family justice system are the most significant changes since the Family Court was established in 1981. The reforms respond to serious concerns about the court raised by court users and professionals.

A survey of individual court users by the Ministry of Justice showed 74 per cent of those who responded preferred to resolve their dispute away from the Family Court. But 61 per cent of the respondents' lawyers had advised them to take the court action in the first instance, rather than attempting to resolve their dispute themselves.

Almost half, 47 per cent, of respondents said their lawyer was "not very" or "not at all" helpful. Over 80 per cent went on to say the Family Court process had a negative impact on their children.

This is simply not good enough.

We already know that 80 per cent of couples who go through relationship break-ups resolve their own disputes without going to court.

Our proposals will ensure that vulnerable people exposed to domestic violence and children needing protection will continue to have immediate access to the court. In fact, they will be given even greater priority through a new urgent case tracking system.

The cost of running the Family Court has skyrocketed from $84 million in 2004/05 to $142 million in 2010/2011, despite the same number of overall applications to the court. One of the ways we can resolve more cases before they get to court is through a proposed new Family Dispute Resolution service.

However, vulnerable people such as those exposed to violence and children needing protection will not be required to take part.


Family Dispute Resolution will mean about 1200 families (approximately 2000 children) will no longer need to go to court.

It will be free for people on low incomes. People above the income threshold will pay much less than the cost of employing a lawyer.

The estimated fee of $897 will be split equally between parents and for those with limited means, the fee will be subsidised.

For each parent, this will cost about the same as one hour of a lawyer's time but will cover up to six sessions with a mediator.

When the court is needed, processes will be more efficient and easier to use. The Family Court must put the needs of children first, rather than those of couples with relationship issues, and most definitely ahead of the needs of those who earn their income from it.

Judith Collins is Minister of Justice.