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Family Court Reforms “need to heed client feedback"

Family Court Reforms “need to heed client feedback of service efficacy” says Counsellor & Social Service Outcomes Researcher

The recent release of the proposed reforms for the New Zealand Family Court, tabled by Minister of Justice Judith Collins, are finally heading in the direction of sound international Family Court outcome evidence, however more weight needs to be given to the service user feedback component of the Family Court Review” says Steve Taylor, the Director of 24-7 Ltd, Counsellor and Social Services Outcomes Researcher.

“In 2009/10 the Family Court dealt with approximately 58,000 families, 66,976 applications, and 14,895 requests for counselling (Ministry of Justice).

In the 2011 – 2012 Family Court review, a service user questionnaire was launched by the Ministry of Justice (“Reviewing the Family Court – A Questionnaire”), the results of which I would argue need to be given appropriate weight and attention by the Minister and the upcoming Justice Select Committee, given the data has been secured from those who have been most dramatically affected by the Family Court process, the service users” says Mr Taylor.

“Service users are the most important stakeholders in the Family Court – more important than Judges, Lawyers, Psychologists, Counsellors, & Social Workers, because all of the aforementioned are simply guests within the process – the family system remains long after a case is closed, and long after the professionals have left the building. It is the voice of the service user, not a particular lobby or special interest group, that should be heeded above all others”.

Despite only 121 responses being received between 20/11/11 – 29/2/12 (a return rate that is perhaps an indication of how poorly the questionnaire was advertised and distributed), the results of the service user questionnaire nevertheless provide a revealing illustration of “what works” for people who have experienced, or are still experiencing, the Family Court process:

· 38% of respondents had a case still proceeding in the Family Court;

· 79% of respondents had to attend the Family Court to settle a dispute.

· 53% of respondents required a Court order in order to settle a dispute.

· 61% of respondent’s lawyers had advised them to take Court action in the first instance.

· 47% of respondents felt that their Lawyers were not helpful to them in their dispute.

· 84% of respondents felt that Counselling was not helpful to them in their dispute.

· 35% of respondents nominated none of the Family Court services as being helpful to them in their dispute (including Counselling, Mediation, Parenting through Separation, and negotiation between lawyers).

· 46% of respondents found no relevance for a final Parenting Order.

· 54% of respondents rated their Lawyer for Child as “not competent”

· 51% of respondents rated their Counsellor as competent, while only 32% of respondents rated their Court-appointed Psychologist as competent (If Counselling is to face the axe in these reforms, then by this result, Court appointed Psychologists should be facing the axe even quicker than Counsellors, who are deemed by service users to be more competent than Court-appointed Psychologists).

· 43% of respondents nominated none of the available Family Court professionals as being helpful to them in their dispute (including Judges; their own Lawyer; Lawyer for Child; the Court appointed Psychologist (who rated “0”); Counsellors; or Mediators).

· 74% of respondents nominated preferences to dispute resolution away from the Family Court.

· 82% of respondents nominated the Family Court process as having had a negative impact on their children.

· 72% of respondents were very dissatisfied with the time it took the Family Court to settle their dispute.

“The long-overdue and welcome side-lining of Lawyers in family disputes; the introduction of family dispute resolution away from and apart from the Family Court; the dumping of ineffective counselling interventions; and the necessary reining in of Lawyer for Child and Specialist service providers will all go a long way to reducing service costs, whilst improving service user experience.

The only significant part missing from the Reforms is a commitment to measuring client outcomes from a service user perspective – let’s not wait another 32 years before we start doing so” says Mr Taylor.


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