Does family violence call for a new court system?

Zoë Lawton discusses whether an integrated approach to managing court proceedings concerning the same family should be adopted in New Zealand

Imagine you have a serious issue with your health, either an injury or an illness. This issue affects multiple aspects of your life. There is no quick easy fix so you will need to go back to the doctor numerous times over the next year - or years - for treatment.

You’re given two options.

Option 1: at every appointment you have to see a different doctor, at different medical clinics, with whom you are unfamiliar. Your medical history will be stored in separate files to which each doctor won’t have full access. Based on the limited information each doctor has, he or she will make the best possible decisions about your treatment but some of these may be ill-informed and inconsistent. There is also limited coordination in terms of the timing of your treatment. If you relapse, you’ll have to see another new doctor who won’t be entirely familiar with your medical history.

Option 2: at every appointment you can see the same doctor at your local medical clinic. They will become familiar with you, and you with them. That one doctor will have all your medical information stored in one file. They will have full oversight of your treatment and be able to make more consistent and well-informed decisions. They will also coordinate the timing of your treatment from start to finish, and if you have a relapse, that same doctor will also treat you.

Chances are, given the choice, most of us would choose Option 2. It is intuitive to want a straightforward process to resolve a serious medical issue as opposed to a complex process that may cause confusion, frustration, stress, or even inadvertently put your health at further risk. 

Having a serious medical issue and making repeated visits to a medical clinic is similar in many respects to having a serious legal issue and making repeated visits to court. However, families affected by violence who are currently making repeated visits to court are not given a choice as to how their legal issues are managed. Rather than appear in front of one judge in one court, they often have to appear before multiple judges in multiple courts: the District Court for criminal proceedings and the Family Court for family proceedings. Some families may also have younger family members involved in criminal proceedings in the Youth Court.

Is it time for a different approach?

The aim of the discussion paper I have prepared is to start a constructive conversation about whether an integrated approach to managing related court proceedings concerning the same family should be adopted in New Zealand. This approach was pioneered in the state of New York, where integrated domestic violence courts have been in operation since 2001.

"New Zealand has the highest reported rate of intimate partner violence in the developed world and the fifth highest reported rate of child abuse. Now's the time to consider other options for our court system."

In general terms, integrated domestic violence courts can hear all criminal and family proceedings relating to the same family where the underlying issue in those proceedings is family violence. One judge is assigned to the family and will handle as many stages of the initial proceedings as logistically possible, as well as any subsequent proceedings. The judge essentially oversees the family’s court involvement, which may last several months or even years, depending on the family.

There is no doubt this type of court system is very different from that we currently have in New Zealand, so both the advantages and disadvantages for families need to be carefully considered. However, we owe it to the considerable number of families affected by violence to have an open mind. New Zealand has the highest reported rate of intimate partner violence in the developed world and the fifth highest reported rate of child abuse. Now's the time to consider other options for our court system. To quote the words of Minister of Justice Amy Adams, “we can, and must, do better for families affected by violence”.

Feedback on Zoë Lawton’s discussion paper is sought from court stakeholders, including all relevant government and non-government agencies as well as members of the public. In particular, feedback is sought from members of the public who have experienced the current court system.

The deadline for feedback is Friday August 25. All feedback will then be provided to the Ministry of Justice and published online. Members of the public are able to provide feedback anonymously, as identifying details can be redacted.

Zoë Lawton was hosted by Victoria University's Faculty of Law as she researched an integrated court system for New Zealand families affected by violence. Her research was funded by the New Zealand Law Foundation under a partnership agreement with the Ministry of Justice.

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