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Newman Speech in the Parliamentary General Debate

Dr Muriel Newman Speech in the Parliamentary General Debate

Yesterday the Government tabled its Care of Children Bill. It was a long awaited response to concerns over the state of family law in New Zealand. I have campaigned long and hard for family law reform – in particular, to introduce shared parenting into our legislation, and to open up the Family Court. These issues were the subject of Private Members’ Bills I introduced into Parliament, both of which were voted down by Labour.

In spite of Labour’s assurances, the Care of Children Bill failed to introduce either shared parenting, or to open up the Family Court. The changes made to the Family Court in the Bill are Clayton’s changes, simply paying lip service to the notion of openness.

While open justice and a free press should be fundamental to the democratic process, New Zealand has a Family Court that all too often operates like a Star Chamber, putting gagging orders on all involved: victims are not permitted to speak of their experiences, and the media cannot report on cases for fear of criminal convictions, even jail.

Even as I speak, a Member of Parliament is facing these sanctions, having been threatened with criminal prosecution by the Solicitor General, because he talked about a constituent family who is a victim of the Family Court.

There is a long established legal principle that justice is not done unless it is seen to be done. When applying this principle, it is clear that New Zealand urgently needs an open Family Court similar to that of Australia, where their court is subjected to proper public and media scrutiny, while still ensuring that the identity of individuals is protected.

With an open court, the sort of debacle I am about to describe could not have occurred: it is a dispute involving matrimonial property that first came before the Family Court seven years ago. The case was simple, and should have been sorted out in the Family Court at the time. However, circumstances meant that it was appealed to the High Court and then to the Court of Appeal before going back to the Family Court, the High Court, the Court of Appeal and around and around. There have now been 53 hearings over that seven-year period. The personal cost to those involved is more than $1 million – and the cost to the taxpayer, several million dollars. If that case had been subjected to proper scrutiny, it would surely have been sorted out years ago.

Then there is the dreadful case of a custodial father who lost his three children as the result of an unbelievable Family Court judgment, which permitted their mother to take them away from their family and friends to live on a benefit in a caravan on the other side of the world. That this family, which has been torn apart, cannot speak openly about this injustice, is inhumane.

Or the case of a father who unexpectedly had an ex-parte protection order slapped on him regarding his new baby. As a result, he did not get to see his child until she was almost one year-old. When he finally had his day in court, the allegation which brought about the order was found to have been false. In the meantime, this dad missed out on watching his baby grow up.

Countries that have opened their Family Court, find that not only do the number of false allegations fall through the floor, but the number of cases of litigation dramatically reduce as people recognise that it is better, easier and cheaper to sort out their disputes by mediation.

There are no drawbacks to opening up the Family Court in New Zealand, no drawbacks at all – so long as the identities of individuals remain protected.

Opening up the Family Court should have been this government’s priority. Opening up the court would create a fairer system for all: judges, lawyers, and caseworkers would all be held accountable; there would be less litigation; less cost to the taxpayer; and better outcomes for children.

It is a sad day for New Zealand that the Labour Government failed to make these necessary changes in its Care of Children Bill. Their action sends out the very clear signal that Labour does not care about children, does not care about families, and does not care about proper justice in New Zealand.

Open justice and free speech are the rights of every New Zealander. To ensure that we enjoy these rights, our courts must be subjected to proper scrutiny and full accountability. The only court in New Zealand that is not subjected to these is the court that deals with families and children.

The Family Court is the only court in the country that can operate like a Star Chamber – no other – and it is long past time that that was changed.

This message has been brought to you from the office of Dr Muriel Newman, MP for ACT New Zealand

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