The way that disputes over care or guardianship issues for children are resolved has changed dramatically with the introduction of the new Family Justice System from 1 April 2014.
The aim of the new approach is to help parents, guardians and caregivers resolve such disputes themselves, rather than through the court system. It is hoped that this will reduce some of the costs, delays and conflict associated with the previous approach.
In most instances, if you cannot agree on care arrangements, and if there are no safety concerns or other reasons why the dispute needs to go straight into court, you will be required to first complete a course known as “Parenting Through Separation”. If that doesn’t resolve all matters in dispute, you will be required to attend a mediation. It is only if mediation does not resolve all matters in dispute that court proceedings may be filed.
The aim of mediation is for you and the other party to use the trained mediator to help you reach your own agreement on care arrangements for your children. Although a variety of people and organisations offer mediation services, the new Family Court system expects you to use a mediator provided through the Family Disputes Resolution Service (“FDRS”). You may not be able to file court proceedings in respect of any unresolved issues if you cannot show that you have attended mediation with an approved FDRS provider within the past 12 months.
If your dispute does get to court after mediation, you will most likely be required to file your court documents yourself, and to represent yourself in court at the initial court conferences. You may not have a lawyer appear in court with you at the issues conference, and you may only have a lawyer with you at the settlement conference if directed by a Judge. If your dispute proceeds to a hearing, however, you may be represented by a lawyer at the hearing itself.
The Ministry of Justice has developed a website with information about the Family Justice system: http://www.justice.govt.nz/family -justice
The Ministry also provides some initial legal advice free of charge, through the Family Legal Advice Service, if you meet the funding criteria. Similarly, FDRS mediation is free if you meet the funding criteria.
We believe that it will often be very important that you seek legal advice at an early stage, even if you don’t meet the funding criteria. We can help you to:
· Understand the new Family Justice system;
· Prepare for mediation;
· Prepare the necessary court documents if mediation doesn’t resolve all matters;
· Prepare for your initial court appearances; and
· Attend the settlement conference with you, if the Judge directs lawyers to attend.
If it looks like your dispute will proceed to a hearing, we can help you to:
· Prepare the evidence that you will rely on at the hearing;
· Prepare you for the hearing; and
· Attend the hearing with you.
If you have any queries about any of the matters set out here, or if you want help at any stage, please do not hesitate to contact us.