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Calls for compensation, training, specialist response

National media reports about a Gisborne woman's mistreatment by the Family Court and subsequent wrongful conviction for a perjury charge have prompted a flood of calls for her to be compensated and the case investigated.

An investigative article by Stuff said the woman's case bore all the concerning hallmarks of experiences being recorded in mounting bodies of research about the Family Court nationwide.

Women were not being believed when they alleged abuse (and their children accordingly being made to have contact with unsafe parents). Women were being warned off making allegations because it might make them look vindictive, which could damage their case.

Mothers were being coerced into dropping protection orders or subjected to endless litigation. Some won protection orders — at huge cost — only to find their abuser could apply to have the order lifted almost any time.

Abuse victims either had too much money to qualify for legal aid or not enough to pay for a lawyer, and many ended up trying to represent themselves with all the pitfalls that brought — victimisation, trauma, demands on their time and a lesser chance of success, Stuff reported.

Following the article and a similar one by Newsroom, a group of more than 70 academics and domestic violence experts last week penned an open letter to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, saying the case typified “state power and ignorance colliding to harm a vulnerable woman”.

“Mrs P's” mistreatment in the Family Court provided a rare opportunity for public insight where such information was seldom available, the group said.

“Core elements of this case resonate strongly with what advocates tell us about women's and children's experiences in the Family Court, and with what some of us know from our own practice and/or research.

“The story highlights multiple occasions where the system failed ‘Mrs P' as a woman who suffered domestic violence she was further harmed by the very institutions that women are urged to turn to for help,” the group’s letter said.

It wanted a Royal Commission of Inquiry as first recommended three years ago by a specialist United Nations Committee United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).

It wanted the woman compensated; people who acted inappropriately in her case and others within the Family Court required to undergo training about family violence and coercive control; and a specialist response to family and sexual violence cases developed and implemented by the Family Court, including Codes of Practice based on the Family Violence Act 2018, to guide conduct in relation to victims of family violence.

“Until the Family Court can be trusted to act on the basis of up-to-date knowledge about intimate partner violence and sexual violence — rather than minimising, trivialising, and ultimately ignoring it, while turning the abused party into the villain — we request that input is sought from external experts in the field.

“This is essential and it is urgent if our courts are to care for the women (and their children) who do what the primary prevention of violence messages tell them to do — speak out and refuse to accept violence and abuse.

“We request the Government's policies and interventions targeting the primary prevention of family violence consider how its messages and guidance to victims and survivors can be supported (rather than sabotaged) by the actions of other state actors — in this case our courts,” the group said.

The group wanted the Prime Minister to give an assurance she had heard their concerns and that a pathway would be put in place demanding more accountability from the courts — especially the Family Court — in its treatment of women and children who had suffered domestic violence and abuse.

According to Stuff, the CEDAW first recommended a Royal Commission of Inquiry in 2019 but the Government instead convened a ministerial panel, with violence largely outside its terms of reference albeit still listed as a key issue for concern.

The CEDAW later said the panel had failed to address the root causes of the problems and the issues of safety for domestic violence victims. The state needed to make legislative and structural change.

Last month Justice Minister Kris Faafoi ruled out a Royal Commission. Instead, he said he would continue to focus on the recommendations of the panel, which included funding training for lawyers and a bill that aimed to centre children in the court, Stuff reported.

The news outlet also quoted the Family Court, which denied a need for change. Stuff reported it was contacted just ahead of “Mrs P's” story being published, by Principal Family Court Judge Jacquelyn Moran who requested an interview with to “correct” its previous reporting on domestic violence and the court.

Questioned about the persistent criticism of the court, Judge Moran said its cases were complex and upsetting for people, who often left the process aggrieved. But she was confident the court was making safe decisions. Family violence was the core of the court's work, she said, and it dealt with safety issues day in and day out.

“Judges are not subject matter experts but they have a huge amount of experience,” she said.

They were experienced family lawyers who understood the ambit of family violence and would not be appointed if they didn't know the nuances and the law.

Judge Moran said Family Court judges — nearly 60 percent of whom are women -— also had continuing education and read the most recent research on family violence.

“I think that the understanding of family violence by judges is something we are mindful of all the time . . . I'm confident they have that skill base.”

There was no need for a change to the structure of the court, Judge Moran said.

Stuff also quoted the country's first Minister for Sexual and Family violence, Marama Davidson, who spoke about hearing ongoing harrowing stories from various advocacy groups and negative experiences withing the Family Court.

“We have research there and evidence there, but in some way we need to have a full idea of what's happening and what supports are put into place where the expertise is lacking.”

She would not be drawn on whether that constituted a commission but said the courts were not exempt from the broader system of transformation she was leading, or the need to change perceptions about violence.

Deborah Mackenzie is the co-founder of Backbone — a collective established four years ago to specifically address the treatment of women victim-survivors in the court, was also interviewed by Stuff.

She said, “The failings of the Family Court happen all over the country. It's not one region or one judge.

“To focus on a single judge is a simplistic response to problems that have been going on for a long time and that the Government is well aware of from mountains of research and feedback from victims.”

Ms Mackenzie supported calls for a commission of inquiry. There needed to be the ability to look at individual decisions, paperwork and to subpoena witnesses, she said. And it needed to extend beyond just looking at judges to include scrutiny of the processes and specialists working in the court.

“At the moment, it's very difficult to get expert material into the court to help with decision-making,” she says. “There's a real separation between the family and sexual violence sector, and the people who work in the court.

“What's really needed is a new specialist model for violence cases in the court. There should be screening and a different approach — one that isn't adversarial.”