An new Family Court watchdog group say authorities are not open to the issues raised by victims who say the system is letting them down and putting them in more danger.
However Justice Minister Amy Adams has slammed their comments, saying she has made family violence her “number one priority”.
The Backbone Collective was established this year, positioned as an independent body “taking action to change New Zealand’s alarming violence-against-women statistics”.
The collective set out to examine the Family Court “through the eyes of its users”: women who have experienced violence and abuse.
In early April the group released their first watchdog report in a bid to highlight issues women were raising with them about the Family Court.
The report outlined 15 themes identified by collective members that purportedly showed how the Family Court was putting women and their children who had experienced violence and abuse in more danger.
The report was forwarded to the Principal Family Court Judge Laurence Ryan, Justice Minister Amy Adams and the New Zealand Law Society.
“We had imagined that the three people tasked with keeping women and children safe in New Zealand would be very concerned about what women were saying and would want to know if their system was making things worse not better,” said collective co-founder Deborah Mackenzie.
“The three bodies have now all responded to our report.
“Unfortunately none of them have been open to the issues women have raised and none have attempted to answer any of the women’s questions either.”
Mackenzie said the collective believed that the issues raised by members were “big red flags about what is going wrong in the Family Court”.
Co-founder Ruth Herbert said the responses from Adams and Judge Ryan were “outrageous” and “disappointing”.
“Minister Adams infers that the Family and Whanau Violence Bill currently before select committee will address issues raised in the Watchdog Report,” she said.
“Backbone members are saying it won’t even touch the sides.
“Women are telling us that the problems in the Family Court are about how the legislation is implemented, interpreted and decision-making around the legislation – not in the legislation itself.”
Mackenzie said members were telling the collective that through the Family Court they were “shut down, minimised and not believed”.
“Something is terribly wrong, when over 80 per cent of the survey participants tell us that they felt the abuser was viewed as’ safe’ by the Family Court even when their experience was that he is not.”
Adams rejected the collective’s claims.
“I take family violence and the devastating impact it has on our country extremely seriously,” she told the Herald.
“I have long been saying that the rate of family violence in New Zealand is unacceptable which is why I’ve made it my number one priority as Justice Minister to tackle this insidious issue.
“I do not accept that I am not open to the issues that women have raised with them, because I absolutely am and in fact, hearing from women and families who have experienced family violence has been a critical part of informing how we can build a better system for responding to family violence.”
Adams said the hundreds of submissions and correspondence she has received on this issue has helped inform her Family and Whanau Violence Legislation Bill and many new initiatives aimed at tackling family violence, including the Integrated Safety Response pilot and the supervised handover of children pilot.
“I have always acknowledged that legislation on its own will not solve the problem, but they are a cornerstone element in how we respond to family violence,” she said.
“Although the Backbone Collective is a very new organisation, they still have the opportunity to provide submissions to the Family and Whanau Violence Legislation Bill, just as many other NGOs and independent organisations have.”
A spokesperson for Judge Ryan said he had no comment to add.
In April he issued a statement about the collective’s criticisms of the Family Court – an extremely rare move for a member of the judiciary – saying they were “erroneous or flawed interpretations” of how the system operates.
“For all these reasons, it is not appropriate for the judiciary to respond in the way the collective seeks,” Judge Ryan said at the time.
“Nor do I intend to make any further public comment on the collective’s campaign and allegations made therein.”
For Judge Ryan’s full statement click here.