The delays within the Family Court system have long been highlighted as a concern, particularly given the increased vulnerability of many of the parties within that system. In the 2019 report, Te Korowai Ture ā-Whānau, the delays within the Family Court system were described as being pervasive at every stage. That report was commissioned to consider the 2014 reforms to the Family Court (which led to a massive and unintended increase in without notice (urgent) applications to the Family Court). Increased judicial resourcing was identified in Te Korowai Ture ā-Whānau as one of the recommendations to assist in easing the delay and backlog of work that has built up within the Family Court.
The Family Court (Family Court Associates) Legislation Bill was introduced on 5 July 2022. While not being law yet, it is anticipated that the implementation of the bill will take place by mid-2023. This bill provides for the appointment of Associates within the Family Court. Those Associates will have some of the powers and functions of a Family Court Judge. Associates will be able to make some decisions (e.g. appointing lawyers to assist the court or to represent a child), set matters down for hearing and obtain any necessary cultural, medical, psychological or psychiatric reports. The purpose being to lighten the administrative load on the Family Court Judges and to speed up the progress of files through the system. Substantial decision making and administrative decision making in complex matters will still be undertaken by Judges.
While legislative reform does not always achieve the purported intention, the common sense approach of increasing judicial resourcing to deal with the immense work load the Family Court deals with, is a positive step and one that seems to have a good chance of reducing the delays that exist within the Family Court system.
The phrase “justice delayed is justice denied” may seem trite but it nevertheless captures in a succinct way an important and undeniable truth. Hopefully the appointment of Family Court Associates (and the implementation of other recommendations from Te Korowai Ture ā-Whānau) will reduce the delays and see more of the most vulnerable members of our society getting access to justice in a timely manner.
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