Otago researchers support children’s participation being enhanced in the family justice system as it undergoes a government-led overhaul.

The results of a six-year research project by the University of Otago’s Children’s Issues Centre evaluating the 2014 Family Law Reforms show many parents and caregivers want their children’s voices to be heard when making post-separation parenting arrangements or navigating family justice processes, such as Family Dispute Resolution mediation or the Family Court.

The research co-led by Associate Professor Nicola Taylor and Dr Megan Gollop, funded by the New Zealand Law Foundation, commenced in 2014 to evaluate the reforms which were intended to shift the emphasis of New Zealand’s family justice system towards out-of-court processes.

Researchers examined experiences of, and satisfaction with, the reforms and the current family justice system from the perspectives of 364 family justice professionals, and 655 separated parents and caregivers who were making parenting arrangements since 2014.

They found high levels of dissatisfaction with the reforms by professionals, and their results fed into an independent review of the 2014 changes commissioned by current Justice Minister Andrew Little.

In May 2020, Mr Little introduced the Family Court Legislation Bill in response to the independent review’s findings, aimed at strengthening the Family Court.

He has indicated a second Bill will follow this year which will enhance children’s participation in proceedings that affect them and ensure children feel supported and informed.

Dr Gollop says just over half of the parents who participated in Family Dispute Resolution or Family Court processes were dissatisfied with the consideration given to their children’s thoughts, feelings and views.

Yet, most of the parents who had talked with their children and sought their views said this was the most helpful step they took when making their parenting arrangements.

One mother said, “everybody really needs to listen to children and what children want…children need to be able to have a say. It needs to be more child-centred”.

Dr Gollop says children and young people can provide valuable insights into their post-separation care arrangements.

“They may be more likely to accept decisions made by adults if they have been consulted as part of the decision-making process,” she says.

Parents advised others making parenting arrangements to focus on the children and their well-being, to try and see things from their perspective and to listen to their views.

One mother said her advice to other parents was to “just take a step back and a deep breath and think about your children, rather than your hurt feelings”.

A father advised others to “focus on the kids … sacrifice what you want”.

They also urged parents to acknowledge their former partner’s importance to their child, to try and maintain an amicable, or at least civil, relationship with their former partner, and to shield their children from any conflict.

Participants advocated a range of improvements to the family justice system that would benefit children, such as counselling and support programmes to assist children with their parents’ separation.

At present there is no free counselling provided for children whose parents have separated, and a Lawyer for the Child is only appointed in Family Court proceedings when there are concerns for the child’s safety or well-being and the court considers this necessary.

“Our research has shown both professionals and parents recommend more training on how to engage with children and young people within the family justice system to better ascertain their feelings and views,” says Associate Professor Taylor.

The Children’s Issues Centre is also celebrating its 25th anniversary and given its long-standing commitment to children’s rights.

Director, Associate Professor Taylor, says it is really encouraging that the Government is acting to better support children’s participation in dispute resolution processes when parents separate.

NZ Law Foundation Director Lynda Hagen says one of the most satisfying aspects of the Foundation’s work is supporting projects that make a real difference to the ability of vulnerable or disadvantaged social groups to navigate the justice system.

“This project is one of those special projects that will help families and children through difficult times in their lives. I am confident this research will make a real difference by informing policy and systemic change and through this change, will deliver positive outcomes for families under stress,” says Ms Hagen.

Access the full CIC reports here.