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Select Committee Makes Important Changes To Bill

Tim Barnett - Member of Parliament for Christchurch Central
Chair, Justice and Electoral Select Committee

June 29th 2004

Select Committee Makes Important Changes To Care Of Children Bill

Tim Barnett, Chair of the Justice and Electoral Committee, has welcomed the significant changes made by his Committee to the Care of Children Bill. Its report was tabled today in Parliament and is available at http://www.clerk.parliament.govt.nz/Publications/CommitteeReport/Default.h tm.

The Bill replaces the Guardianship Act 1968, and modernises the law on guardianship and the care of children. Its core focus is on the 'welfare and best interests of the child". It covers guardianship matters, parenting orders, court procedures and degrees of openness, consent to medical procedures, international child abduction and the status of children conceived as a result of assisted human reproduction procedures.

Significant changes made by the Select Committee covered:

· Adding guiding principles at the beginning of the Bill, to act as guidance for parents and courts;
· More openness for Family Court proceedings;
· Greater incentives for applicants for parenting orders to cooperate;
· Inserting Court time limits to prevent delays in considering whether to make interim orders final;
· Adding incentives for guardians to cooperate; and
· Increasing checks before the new partner of a parent can be appointed a guardian.
(see summary details attached)

The Bill was referred to the Committee in July 2003. 277 submissions were received and 101 were heard. Chief Family Court Judges Mahony and Boshier appeared before the Committee. While the Bill was before the Select Committee, the Law Commission issued its report on the courts system and a discussion paper on the Status of Children.

Tim Barnett said today:

"This is a once-in-a-generation reform of key laws affecting many thousands of New Zealanders and vital to the future of many of our children. The Select Committee has listened to public and agency concerns and acted on them. The law's message is now very clear - parents must put their own interests to one side and focus on what is best for their children. There will be strong incentives for cooperation, both when parenting orders are being set up and when ongoing guardianship is operating. Delaying tactics will be more obvious and will be easier to address. Family Courts will be more open. There will also be extra checks before a partner's new parents can become guardians. This is strong law which will improve the welfare of children and work in their best interests".


Key Changes Made By The Select Committee To The Care Of Children Bill

1. Insertion of guiding principles, giving a context within which the best interests of the child can be assessed and providing greater clarity for families approaching the Family Court for an agreement or order. One principle specifically provides for a child's need for continuing relationships with both of their parents;

2. Greater openness for Family Court proceedings, including the attendance of accredited news media reporters and support persons (on request from the parties), all at the discretion of the judge and open to challenge from parties;

3. Expanded availability of counselling, to cover disputes over the exercise of guardianship and disputes relating to an agreement;

4. Strengthening the concept of parenting orders, which will replace the 'win/lose" language of custody and access with "day to day care" and "contact", to include a statement from the applicant about the extent to which the order should provide for any other persons role in care for the child. Unwillingness on the part of an applicant for a parenting order to contemplate cooperation with the other parties could be seen as a sign of that person not acting in the best interests of the child. The option of the Court requiring, in respect of a parenting order, that a party pay a bond (with their ability to pay taken into account) was also added to the Bill;

5. A requirement placed on the Court to resolve within set time frames the consideration of whether an interim order should be made final; a requirement on parents to take all reasonable steps to obtain a final order as soon as practicable;

6. Tighter law relating to the exercise of guardianship, including the placing of greater stress on the child's place of residence and the addition of the child's culture and language as important matters affecting the child; a specific stipulation that guardians must act jointly with each other in exercising their duties, powers, rights and responsibilities in relation to a child;

7. The inclusion of additional checks on relevant convictions prior to the appointment of a (new) partner of a parent as an additional guardian, including specifically appending their criminal record, and expansion of the range of criminal convictions which exclude someone from being appointed, to include any offence involving harm to a child, including a censorship offence involving child pornography. The proviso that the applicant has to have shared responsibility for the day-to-day care of the child for one year was also added;

8. The addition of a clause requiring a lawyer acting for a child to meet with the child in all but exceptional circumstances; also a clause requiring the Court to consider as soon as practicable whether to appoint a lawyer to act for the child in proceedings relating to parenting orders in which allegations of violence have been made.

9. The Committee is not recommending any change to Cl 37 of the Bill, which restates the ability of a girl of any age to consent on her own (without parental consent) to an abortion, or to refuse the same. No evidence of abuse of this provision was provided in submissions to the Committee. It is understood that in the vast majority of cases parents are involved and that best practice guidelines stress that it is better for parents to be told.

ENDS

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