'Not good for children' - expert calls for family mediation to be mandatory before heading to court

A family justice expert is calling for family mediation to be made mandatory before people access the New Zealand court system over disputes involving the family, such as custody disputes.

It comes after an independent review into the country’s family justice system, released this morning, recommended sweeping changes, including the development of an inclusive and combined approach. 

The Arbitrators' & Mediators' Institute of New Zealand director Deborah Hart told TVNZ1's Breakfast this morning that the report is "really quite excellent and it has many things in it that we've been calling for for a long time."

"Things like counselling availability funded, family mediation being funded, early legal advice being funded – these are all fantastic things. There's some really good stuff in this report."

Ms Hart said, however, that things need to go further, noting that the report "says what we all know, which is that early resolution of family disputes is a really good thing for families and for children."

"We agree with that, but what it’s not saying is that we need to make mediation mandatory before people can access the court, and that’s really problematic, because what we know … [is] that voluntary mediation schemes are underutilised, that it means that a larger number of people will go into the court system, and we know that courts, with the best will in the world, are adversarial and not good for families and not good for children, either.

"It's meant to be mandatory now before you access the court, and because of the way that the whole system was framed, it hasn't been mandatory in practice."

She added that we "do have, in this country, have many mandatory mediation schemes" in place to resolve issues before they reach the courts.

"We require tenancy disputes to go to mediation before they get to the Tenancy Tribunal - same thing for employment disputes – and we should be doing the same thing for families, because it's really great for children."

Ms Hart noted a high rate of settlement through mediation, with the report revealing that 84 per cent "settle in part or in whole and the majority of them never, ever have to go into the court, which is fantastic."

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The Arbitrators' & Mediators' Institute of NZ’s Deborah Hart discussed a newly-released family justice report. Source: Breakfast