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Dames say their concerns ignored by top Family Court judge

Radio New Zealand logo Radio New Zealand 11/11/2021 Anneke Smith
© RNZ / Leigh-Marama McLachlan

Two Dames have taken aim at the top Family Court judge, saying she is ignoring concerns about how whānau are treated in court.

Dames Tariana Turia and Naida Glavish were among a group of five Māori leaders who sought an urgent Waitangi Tribunal hearing over the government's handling of Whānau Ora.

Shortly afterwards, they sat down with Principal Family Court Judge Jackie Moran and Chief District Court Judge Heemi Taumaunu to talk about whānau experiences in the court.

They walked away with a promise of a working relationship but have now joined a growing chorus who say the Family Court is falling short of its own standards.

"It disturbs me hugely that the lives of our children are clearly of no paramountcy in this system," former Māori Party co-founder Dame Turia said.

"That we would ignore the issues that have happened to them when we had an ability to work through with someone at the highest end of the spectrum."

Judge Moran declined to be interviewed but in a statement said her ability to met with iwi leaders had been "significantly impacted" by the Covid-19 alert level and travel restrictions.

Dame Naida Glavish, who was also at the hui held in Wellington some 18 months ago, said the lack of follow up was extremely disappointing but not surprising.

"I was hopeful at that one and only meeting that we had that we actually would develop some relationship, some meaningful engagement, and nothing's happened. I'm not surprised, given the history."

Dame Naida Glavish is disappointed by the lack of follow-up to a hui held about 18 months ago on concerns about the Family Court. Photo: RNZ / Leigh-Marama McLachlan

The Family Court celebrates its 40th anniversary this year; its arrival in 1981 marking New Zealand's first attempt at a therapeutic, or solutions-focused, court.

It has suffered many years of criticism and several reviews, even triggering the attention of the United Nations that recommended a Royal Commission of Inquiry into the treatment of women in the family court system.

© RNZ / Dan Cook

Former Human Rights Commissioner Rosslyn Noonan chaired an independent review of the changes made to the court by the National Party in 2014.

Despite the obvious challenges and complexities in Family Court cases, Noonan said the court was failing to meet its therapeutic mandate.

"I think it's got huge challenges. I want to emphasise the complexity and difficulties of many of the issues that come before the Family Court as a whole, not only in terms of the Care of Children Act.

"I don't think there's any evidence now that it's fulfilling a therapeutic role. I think that element, expectation and hope for a whole variety of reasons seems to have disappeared."

Judge Heemi Taumaunu last year announced a new court model Te Ao Mārama that will eventually incorporate the best practices developed in specialist courts in the district court, the country's busiest jurisdiction.

At the time of that announcement, Judge Taumaunu said the specialist Alcohol and Other Drug Treatment Court would be rolled out to the Family Court; providing addiction treatment options for mothers whose dependancy issues have led to, or threatened, the removal of children.

The New Zealand Centre for Human Rights Law, Policy and Practice director, Rosslyn Noonan. © Provided by Radio New Zealand The New Zealand Centre for Human Rights Law, Policy and Practice director, Rosslyn Noonan.

Former Human Rights Commissioner Rosslyn Noonan says it feels like the system is caught up in a 1980s time warp. Photo: RNZ / Phil Pennington

Noonan said incorporating aspects of existing specialist courts was a step forward for the Family Court but more work needed to be done.

"I don't think that fundamentally tackles what we saw as the barriers to justice for so many people, which was the lack of incorporation of any aspects of te ao Māori, the mediation services and the barriers for people with disabilities or diverse backgrounds.

"It just seems like the whole system, despite some very good people within it, was caught in a sort of 1980s time warp."

Judge Jackie Moran said work was underway on how to best bring Te Ao Mārama into the Family Court, and when it was safe to travel again, she looked forward to discussing these developments with iwi leaders.

Dame Turia said she initially met with the top judge because she thought she could be helpful; a belief she still held.

"I think there is nothing more sad for a family than to know that the value of their contribution in a situation that has many complexities to it for them, as well as for those who are helping support them, that they're of no value; that nobody cares. That's not a good message, nor is it a healing one, to give to people who've often had traumatic lives.

"This is not an opportunity for me or anyone else to be disrespectful. We realise the complexity of the whānau when issues happen with them. I guess why we met with her and with the others is because we thought that we could be helpful and I still think we could be."

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