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Law Society On Relaxation Of Family Court Media

FOR IMMEDIATE USE 23 January 2001

Media Release from Anita Chan, Chair of the Family Law Section of the New Zealand Law Society

The Family Law Section of the New Zealand Law Society supports relaxation of the present tight hold on publicity in the Family Court.
Public scrutiny of any court system is a good and healthy thing. However, because of the deeply personal nature of Family Court cases, the public interest must be carefully balanced against the interests of protecting the privacy of families and, in particular, children.
The current bill before Parliament, The Family Court (Openness of Proceedings) Amendment Bill envisages that the Family Court should be open to the media and except in exceptional cases, the public. This is totally untenable given the extremely personal nature of cases before the Family Court. In some cases it would deter families altogether from availing themselves of the Family Court as a forum for resolution of their disputes. In others it is likely to significantly inhibit the quality (fullness and frankness) of evidence given to the courts. It would also open the door to and indeed encourage the making of false claims designed solely to grab media attention for personal gain.
It is naive and totally unrealistic to expect that privacy would be able to be adequately protected by media name suppression as suggested by Muriel Newman.
It is inappropriate to compare the Youth Court with the Family Court. The Youth Court deals with criminal offences against the state. The Family Court is a forum for private citizens to have highly sensitive issues of a personal nature resolved.
Nevertheless, there is room for some relaxation on the current prohibition on publicity. The Family Law Section in its submissions on the Ministry of Justice discussion paper on The Laws About Guardianship, Custody and Access makes specific recommendations on how better public scrutiny can be achieved.
These include recognising an education role for the court so it can make the public aware of the stance being taken on significant issues such as violence, and releasing edited versions of decisions. The test for attendance by the public and/or media at Family Court should be does the private interest outweigh the public interest in the particular case?
Muriel Newman’s stance on this issue smacks of sensationalism. In a Dominion article, “Banish this Secret Society” (6 December 2000) she used intemperate language and emotive anecdotes to portray the Family Court as a grossly destructive and inhumane system which actively “brutalises” families to such an extent that people are driven “to murder and suicide”.
Professionals working in the Family Court recognise this to be far from the truth. All Family Court professionals work within a statutory framework which requires them to promote conciliation in handling family disputes. A vast amount of energy is invested on a daily basis by family court judges, lawyers and other professionals in assisting families to resolve their disputes in a conciliatory fashion wherever possible. Indeed, the great majority of disputes that pass through the system are resolved by agreement in a civilised fashion.
It is undeniable that in a very small percentage of cases dealt with by the Family Court tragic consequences do result. However, it simply does not follow that is the Family Court system that is responsible. In cases involving children the courts are under a statutory mandate to place the welfare of children as the paramount consideration. Upholding of this duty will inevitably result in some parties becoming aggrieved, very occasionally with tragic results.
With the current prohibition on publicity, the Family Court and the professionals within it are prohibited from replying when aggrieved parties speak out about their experiences. Some relaxation of the strict prohibition would assist in a more complete picture being presented.


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