On Thursday I attended a Public meeting on the Waitakere Family Court changes. A committed mix of people were there to express their concerns – family violence organisations, the PSA, Community Waitakere, the Waitakere Law Service, Family Lawyers (even a couple who are National Party supporters/ members), local body representatives and other genuinely concerned members of the public. Following that meeting myself and fellow West Auckland colleague Phil Twyford have discussed this issue further with key stakeholders. We do have to wonder – where are the West Auckland Government MPs on this issue (keep in mind there are five of them – John Key, Paula Bennett, Tim Grosser, Pita Sharples and Tau Henare)?
Some have said that what is proposed in the discussion document (link below) seems harmless….well that would be because the implications of the changes aren’t spelt out. Those who actively engage with the Waitakere Family Court, have more of an insight in to what the changes will mean.
Based on the meeting I attended – I’m going to try to outline the situation and the main points of concern.
There are four overarching concerns:
- short term cost saving at the expense of justice
- Failure to adequately consult
- Failure to consider the impact on the local community and the quality of service (the West is being shafted)
- Vulnerable members of society (victims of domestic violence, children, elderly) are being deprived access to justice
What is currently in place?
Waitakere Family and Civil Courts are stand alone entities. They have their own staff and internal management and operate independently. Waitakere Family Court is the fourth largest in the country (there is a demand out west) and one of the most efficient (Auckland is one of the least). In 2010 the Waitakere Family Court processed 5341 applications with one full time judge and in the same time the Auckland courts managed around 6650 applications.
What is being proposed?
That selected staff and court functions from Northshore and Waitakere Courts be centralised to the Auckland District Court. That Waitakere and Northshore maintain counter services and ‘short cause’ fixtures (i.e. under one day) but that files be stored and case management be conducted and ‘long cause’ fixtures be heard, at Auckland.
Fewer court managers and employees along with jobs being transferred to the CBD will inevitably result in job losses. An integral part of the success that Waitakere Court has had, was based on the strong working relationship between court staff, lawyers and clients – this will be lost. A lot of the local knowledge and community relationships that exists within the Waitakere Family Court will be strained if services are crammed in the Auckland City. Community organisations rely on these existing relationships to deliver customised support to individuals and families. The other issue sighted is that time will inevitably be wasted due to the transferring of files from location to location. Waitakere stands to lose the benefit of immediate access to justice.
Why is the Government making these changes?
They’ve cited ‘budget blowout’ as the reason why changes have to be made. One of the lawyers at the meeting referred to the following as the reason why there has been a budget blow out in Justice/ courts:
- 1995 Domestic Violence Act resulted in increased workload
- The last Government (labour) made it easier for Women and Children to access justice (not a bad thing but increased workloads)
- Introduction of the, Care of Children Act 2005, resulted in children having a say in court (not a bad thing but it also increased the workloads)
- Legislative changes meant that there were provisions for courts to direct parties on to counselling or mediation (this increased their workload)
- The current state of the economy has meant that family lawyers are being kept busy. When times are tough a family lawyer won’t go without work (family interventions over separation, domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse)
Other important points made at the meeting:
- There is room for a review of the family courts
- Decisions like this make people question the Governments so called priority of ‘protecting children’
- If there is that much space at Auckland, then why can’t Waitakere just move all of their dead files there and keep all of their live files in Waitakere
- Labour focused on access to justice – National focusses on short term cost cutting, which will have long term social costs (and these equate to ‘$’ costs)
- The proposed changes to court services alongside other National Government changes such as changes to legal aid, are all depriving people of their right to access justice
- The key question should have been – how does this effect those who need to access justice? But the Ministry haven’t asked this question when considering the changes
- The Government is again steamrolling through their changes – reminiscent of the Supercity Legislation…no consultation and the West stands to lose.
- There was a notable of absence of court staff and CYFS workers – apparently they’ve been told to remain quiet on the issue (one of the downsides to being a public servant). CYFS is one of the biggest users of the family court so it was thought that they should have a voice on this matter