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News and views from The Backbone Collective which advocates for women and children who have experienced violence or abuse and who are enduring further harm from New Zealand's Family Court. 

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Open Letter To The Family Court Review Panel From A Domestic violence Survivor

A domestic violence survivor and Backbone member shares her open letter written to the Family Court Review Panel.

While she explains how urgently changes are needed in the Family Court, she articulates her serious concern that the Review is not a safe way for women to share their experiences of the Family Court. Most particularly, the status of the Review means that all submissions are discoverable under the Official information Act (OIA) and this is likely to make survivors fearful about sending submissions. But it will encourage more submissions from those who currently benefit from the status quo like lawyers and abusers which will severely slant the findings of the Review.

This is the first time this woman has ever spoken out about the Family Court failings and the damage it does to women and children who have suffered violence and abuse. She feels the review is such an important opportunity she has a duty to speak up and explain that its structure will silence women.

"Like the women who were denied the vote, I am denied the right to be a change agent or to advocate for women and children for freedom from oppression.” 

 A woman is desperate for urgent changes to be made to the Family Court so that it responds safely to women and children who have experienced violence and abuse. However, she explains that the structure of the Family Court Review will silence rather than encourage domestic violence survivors to share their experiences.

A woman is desperate for urgent changes to be made to the Family Court so that it responds safely to women and children who have experienced violence and abuse. However, she explains that the structure of the Family Court Review will silence rather than encourage domestic violence survivors to share their experiences.

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Message begins:

Tēnā koutou    

 I understand that you are to head the review into the Family Court. 

 I further understand that all submissions are to be made discoverable under the Official Information Act. 

In this, the year we celebrate 125 years of suffrage for women, this woman, like the thousands of female survivors of domestic violence or mothers of abused children, cannot yet participate fully in democracy.  Like the women who were denied the vote, I am denied the right to be a change agent or to advocate for women and children for freedom from oppression.   

Kate Shepherd and her compatriots would be shocked that New Zealand still leads the world in domestic violence.  Thousands of women and children continue to be denied the human rights of the protection of the Court and participation in democracy.  Please let me explain how the structure of this review contributes to this situation.  

As it stands, no person who has actually come before the Family Court will be able to make submissions on their experiences, without a)putting themselves at risk of Contempt of Court b) potentially putting their safety and/or the safety of their children at risk c) putting themselves and their children at risk of harm from breaches of privacy that may haunt them later in life.
— Domestic Violence Survivor writing to the Review Panel

 As it stands, no person who has actually come before the Family Court will be able to make submissions on their experiences, without a) putting themselves at risk of Contempt of Court b) potentially putting their safety and/or the safety of their children at risk c) putting themselves and their children at risk of harm from breaches of privacy that may haunt them later in life.  Each of these concerns would individually, prevent any submission to the review.  

 I understand that there is a need in a democracy for openness and transparency of process, and this is the rationale for making submissions discoverable under the Official Information.  However, in the case of a Family Court review, this review will be pointless without the testimonies of those who have come before the Court. 

The only people who will be able to contribute will be those who largely benefit from the status quo, such as lawyers, Court-appointed psychologists, and submitters who do not fear this harm (abusers).  Their view of the Court is vastly different to those who seek the protection of the Court for themselves or their children. 

A review of the Family Court in these conditions is destined to fail, just as the 2014 review did (and presumably reviews before then).

this review will be pointless without the testimonies of those who have come before the Court.  The only people who will be able to contribute will be those who largely benefit from the status quo.

I want to offer my insights into how the Family Court must, and could, be transformed.  However, these insights will mean nothing to you, until you understand the context in which they have been formed, and until you have heard the pain that I carry for myself, my children and my whanau. 

I need to write a submission and to tell you my story in person.  I know that because I am articulate, well educated and am in the right head space, I have a duty as a citizen to try and change the system that continues to cause inter generational trauma to thousands of women and children every year.  Further, this process would help me in healing from the trauma that the Court has exposed me to, and I believe I am entitled to this opportunity.

But a submission discoverable under the Official Information Act would put me in Contempt of Court, would expose me to harm, and (to me more importantly) expose my children to harm.  (Even writing this email puts me and my children at some level of risk, but I feel this issue is too important to remain silent).

But a submission discoverable under the Official Information Act would put me in Contempt of Court, would expose me to harm, and (to me more importantly) expose my children to harm. 

The Family Court as it exists does not merely fail to protect survivors of domestic violence, it actually enables abusers to continue their abuse by gaming the system for years, not in one or two individual cases, but systemically.  We are not dealing with one or two lawyers or judges who are negligent or poorly trained, but whole systems and processes that actively work against survivors of domestic abuse. 

As it exists now, there is no way that survivors of domestic violence can avoid this from happening.  I could not advise survivors to just "avoid the Family Court", for example, because their abuser will find or invent some pretence to initiate proceedings at the Family Court. 

Domestic violence survivors (mothers) are routinely separated from their children whilst the children are left in the care of the abuser, who in many cases abuses the children physically or sexually, completely unchecked by the Courts.  

It is not enough to simply promote the slogan that domestic violence "Is not OK".  Support for survivors needs to be woven into the fabric of every institution that survivors encounter, including the Family Court.  Until this is addressed, no amount of education of perpetrators, victim support services, or improved police response will make any material difference in the lives of survivors. 

Only survivors know how to make the Family Court responsive to their needs, so it is vital the review does everything in its power to engage them and give significant weight to their recommendations.

Only survivors know how to make the Family Court responsive to their needs, so it is vital the review does everything in its power to engage them and give significant weight to their recommendations. Without survivor input the Family Court review will be totally ineffective, and the Family Court will continue to harm survivors of domestic violence at a scale that would shock the public if it were able to be known. 

 A very simple change that must be made is to allow submissions from those who have come before the Court to be made anonymously, whether in written or oral form.  To promote transparency,  employ a sensitive, experienced, researcher to collate stories with similar themes, and make only the methodology the researcher used and the collated, anonymised form discoverable under the Official Information Act. 

Not being a lawyer I don't know the finer details of how to do this, but presumably an Act of parliament could be used to give an exemption from the Official Information Act in this case.

To promote transparency,  employ a sensitive, experienced, researcher to collate stories with similar themes, and make only the methodology the researcher used and the collated, anonymised form discoverable under the Official Information Act. 

It should also be noted that survivors of domestic violence are likely to be focussed on just that - survival.  For this reason, those survivors who are able to make a submission, should be taken seriously.  We represent the tip of an enormous iceberg, most of which is submerged because it is fighting drowning.

 Message ends.

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The Backbone member received a reply from the Chair of the Review Panel. The relevant section of that letter is below;

The advice the Review Panel has received from the Ministry of Justice is that you can submit anonymously. The Ministry of Justice will only collect personal information that submitters choose to give while using the consultation website or making a submission in any other form.

 Further although all submissions will come under the Official Information Act, “the Ministry of Justice may, however, withhold all or parts of your submission if it is necessary to protect your privacy or if it has been supplied subject to an obligation of confidence”.

 A recent letter from the Ombudsman refers to “special circumstances (such as the disclosure of one’s personal circumstances)” when submissions can be withheld and goes on to state:
It seems likely that the Panel, given its nature, will receive submissions containing inherently confidential or high personal information of the ‘exceptional’ kind contemplated …. 

 It’s just that we can’t give a blanket guarantee. It has to be on a case by case basis.

 I am seeking further advice on the contempt of court issue you raise.

 The Panel wants to hear from as many people as possible who have had experience of the Family Court and related services process. And we most certainly want to be able to do so without putting any one at risk of any kind.

Reply  ends

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Backbone will be preparing and releasing a guide for women on how to submit safely to the Review once we have received answers from the Panel to a list of questions we submitted to them on 7 August.

 

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