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Family Court Changes Could Be No Change At All

Family Court Changes Could Be No Change At All

ACT New Zealand Deputy Leader and Social Welfare Spokesman Dr Muriel Newman today issued official information confirming that the Labour Government's changes to bring more openness into the Family Court could well be toothless.

"While clause 129 (1)(fa) of the Care of Children Bill certainly allows accredited media and a wider range of people to attend Family Court hearings, clause 129 (3) contains sweeping provisions to allow parties involved in a case to object," Dr Newman said.

"I have sought clarification from the Government as to its intention: if it becomes common practice to object to the presence of media in hearings, then claims of bringing more openness into the Family Court are false. Today, I asked the Minister's office"

`Can any party to proceedings object to the presence of an accredited news media reporter and if so can a Judge exclude them from proceedings?'

"And the official answer:

`A party is free to raise concerns with the presiding judge about the presence of witnesses, a person speaking about a child's cultural background, support persons and an accredited news media reporter at a hearing. The judge is entitled to request any of the above persons to leave a courtroom, and the person must comply with such a request (cl 129 (3) - this provision is an extension of s27(2) of the Guardianship Act 1968).'

The Bill does not attempt to prescribe in what situations a Judge would make such a request. This is not unusual in legislation. There are a number of situations in which it might be appropriate to exclude observers, as opposed to parties, from a hearing.

Examples justifying exclusion might include intensely personal evidence of sexual abuse; the presence of one party's supporters is intimidating the other party; a child is giving evidence in Court; or where the persons are disrupting the hearing.

"In making a decision under clause 129 (3), a Judge will balance a number of competing interests, including the need for transparency and public interest in proceedings against the privacy interests of the parties involved and the best interests of the child.

"This answer demonstrates that, despite of Labour's rhetoric, openness appears to be an optional extra. That is why changing the presumption of the court from closed to open was so important, and why it was so disappointing to see the government opposing that move in order to protect the secrecy in the court", Dr Newman said.

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