More open family court inevitable, says leading judge


The Family Court needs to be more open so the public can learn the "not always so pretty" picture of how some people treat children, Principal Family Court Judge Peter Boshier said today.

Just how open the court should be was a matter for debate.

However, he said there was a consensus from both the parliamentary and executive arms of government that the Family Court needed to be more open, "and so it is inevitable that there will be further moves in that direction".

Judge Boshier was speaking to a Littlies Lobby breakfast hosted by Labour MP Steve Chadwick and National MP Katherine Rich.

The judge said that when the Family Court was created, it was felt those appearing before it needed to have privacy and confidentiality.

Parliament had in 1980 created a clear distinction between the Family Court and other typically public courts, he said.

While that allowed dignity and privacy to remain intact, "it has not necessarily permitted a clear view to be obtained on how some of us conduct ourselves. The picture is not always so pretty".

Judge Boshier said that soon after he was appointed to the bench in 1988 he was asked to make a custody order for the sibling of a two-year-old girl called Delcelia.

He read an affidavit of her injuries when she was killed in March 1991.

Her front teeth were broken, her jaw was fractured, she had fresh and old scars around her throat, cigarette burns on her legs, she was undernourished, her hair had apparently been pulled out, she had massive scalding on her back, buttocks and stomach, and also had scalding on her left arm. She also appeared to have been sexually violated.

Her mother, Tania Witika, was charged with her murder, but convicted of manslaughter and served 10 years in jail. She was released last September.

Judge Boshier said Delcelia's death was believed to have been caused by peritonitis from a burst bowel which resulted from a blow to the abdomen.

He said he could share some of the details because the case also involved a criminal trial.

Many other cases the public did not know about, not necessarily as serious as Delcelia's, came before the Family Court , he said.

"I regret that. I would like there to be a much clearer window through which we can all look to see what sort of domestic violence cases come before the Family Court."

That would enable the public to see the "at times unbelievable things that New Zealanders do to other New Zealanders".

"If we are to make our children secure and stop them from forming part of a repeat violence cycle, we need to know the facts and we need to know to what extent domestic violence is putting our young children at risk.

"... domestic violence is a scourge and we must to the very best of our ability ensure that children must be secure at home."

Judge Boshier said there were two ways children could be protected -- through care and protection proceedings that might be taken through the Department of Child, Youth and Family Services, and the making of protection orders.

Between July 2003 and July 2004, 4899 applications for protection orders were made and 2673 final protection orders were made.

These orders related to situations where judges felt that domestic violence was occurring to such an extent that protection of victims was required.

Judges were often "visibly moved by the unfairness and the injustice of young vulnerable children either witnessing severe violence or being subject to it themselves".

Judge Boshier said there had been a decline in the number of orders applied for since June 1999 when statistics first started being collected.

One obvious reason for the decline was because protection orders stayed in place forever unless they were discharged.

However, it was concerning that a report by the Women's Refuge said many women victims found the obtaining of protection orders too expensive, too difficult and not worthwhile.

The Family Court must look at its processes to make sure these were operating as Parliament expected when Family Court legislation was passed, Judge Boshier said.

Family Court judges had recently tried to respond to concerns about delays in getting back to court after temporary protection orders had been made, by creating an automatic review hearing within two weeks after the temporary protection order where the order also protected children.

Judge Boshier also commented briefly on political debate about the concept of family.

Family Court judges saw too many conventional dysfunctional families in which "repartnering" by adults had occurred to such an extent that a sense of nurturing, belonging and feeling secure had been far too compromised, he said.

What seemed to matter most to him was that there be a loving, nurturing home in which children could be brought up.

"If we can do anything to avoid families like the one in which poor Delcelia Witika was brought up in and perished in, then I would applaud it."