Family Court

The Family Court deals with family matters including:

  • domestic violence including protection orders
  • adoption
  • care and protection of children
  • separation and divorce
  • relationship property
  • mental health
  • child abduction.

The Family Court tries to help people solve disputes about leaving or staying in a relationship, custody, access and property without having a court hearing.

A Family Court Coordinator (FCC) can help you with any information you need in relation to your case. These specialist staff are employed by the Family Court to liaise with and make referrals to counsellors, specialist report writers, social workers and the lawyer for the child.

What happens when I go to the Family Court?

The Family Court is closed to the public and is not reported on in the paper. It’s not as formal as the District Court or High Court.

At the Family Court, family issues are sorted out through counselling, mediation or a hearing. In cases where there is violence involved, there is usually separate counselling, then either a mediation conference if it’s safe, or a hearing. The court decides which is the best way for decisions to be made in each case.

At counselling, you can talk through all the issues with the counsellor who will help you work out what you want to do. This counselling is not about getting you back together with your partner, unless that is what you want. You don’t have to be at counselling at the same time as the abuser, as long as you tell the court staff that there is violence in your relationship.

You may be required to go to a mediation conference, where a judge tries to help you and the other person come to an agreement. If you can’t, the issues will be dealt with at a hearing, in which the judge listens to both you and the other parent before making a decision.

The judge must find out what the children want, and take that into account depending on their age and maturity. The judge can also ask professionals involved in the case to prepare reports about what they think would be best for the children, such as like the lawyer appointed to represent the children, social workers, doctors and psychologists.

Learn more including information for children and young people and downloading application forms by visiting the website of the Family Court of New Zealand.

District Court

If the abuser has been charged with a crime such as assault, rape, theft, kidnapping, property damage or breaching a Protection Order, then their case will usually be heard in the District Court – or possibly the High Court.

The police or Victim’s Advisor should keep you informed about what is happening with the case. They should ring you and tell you if charges have been laid – and if not, why not – as well as any court dates; what bail conditions have been granted; what is required from you in terms of being a witness; and the results of the court proceedings.

Victim Advisors are specialist staff employed by courts to help victims. Their free and confidential advice is to:

  • provide information to victims about the case that relates to them
  • advise victims about their rights in the court process
  • help victims participate in the court system.

Victim’s Advisors should also help you write your Victim Impact Statement. You can also ask your Women’s Refuge advocate or support person to help you with this information.

As a victim of a crime you are entitled to courteous, compassionate and respectful service from court officers, police and all others involved in your case. Learn more about your rights.

The first appearance

The ‘first appearance’ is when the person accused appears in court after being arrested and is asked whether they plead guilty, not guilty, or are entering no plea.

If they plead guilty, you will not be required to appear in court to give evidence. The judge may sentence the abuser right away or call for a report from a probation officer, psychologist or psychiatrist before sentencing. In this case the abuser will be remanded in custody or on bail, and sentencing will come later.

If the abuser pleads not guilty, a date will be set for a preliminary hearing, which is also called a depositions hearing. If the abuser enters no plea the case will be adjourned, or put off, for a week or two to give the abuser further time to decide which way to plead. A new trial date will be set.

After the first appearance the abuser can be remanded on bail, or may be held in custody in prison. This depends on the charges that are laid by police and the abuser’s criminal history. The abuser may also be given conditions to keep away from you and your children until the next court date.

Preliminary hearing or depositions hearing

This is when the judge decides if there is enough evidence for the trial to go ahead. If so, a trial will take place weeks or months after the first appearance.

The trial

The police will tell you when the date of the trail has been set, and how long it should take. The trial could involve a jury and a judge, or be with a judge only.

If the abuser is found guilty, sentencing could be days, weeks or months after the trial. It involves another court session, in which the judge imposes a sentence, which could be a fine, community service, periodic detention (PD), probation, or imprisonment. They can also be ordered to attend a Stopping Violence programme, and drug and alcohol counselling, etc.

You can also ask about the abuser being kept away from you, your children and/or your home. For domestic violence offences, judges should not give leave to apply for home detention. If this is granted, however, you can speak to the Parole Board in secret and tell them if you are afraid for your safety.

You may or may not be called as a witness. If you are, talk to your lawyer and to the Victim’s Advisor about what this will mean and what you need to say. If you don’t have a lawyer, you can go to the courthouse before the trial and talk with the ‘duty solicitor’ about the hearing. This is a free service but there may be a queue for their service, so allow plenty of time.

You should also phone the police prosecutor or the officer in charge of the case to understand how they’re approaching the prosecution.

Tips for dealing with the trial

  • When the abuser is testifying, keep quiet, even if they are telling lies. Listen carefully and tell the police prosecutor what has been said that’s not true.
  • When it’s your turn to give evidence, speak clearly and accurately to the judge.
  • Answer only what you are asked. Pause before answering so that you can think out what you are going to say before you speak.
  • If you get upset and cry, just remember judges and lawyers are used to that happening in situations like yours. It’s quite understandable.

Once the police are involved with a domestic violence crime, it’s up to them to decide whether to go ahead with a prosecution. It’s not up to you to ‘drop the charges’.

The court can summons you to attend to give evidence. If you’re worried about what the abuser might do if you give evidence, or if they threaten you, talk to your lawyer, the police officer in charge of your case, a Women’s Refuge advocate or the Victim’s Advisor.

Often, the police prosecution is reliant on the victim’s story, so if you withdraw your statement or refuse to cooperate with police then the trial may not continue.

You need to think carefully about what it will mean for the abuser and for you and your whānau/family if the charges are dropped. Will the abuser think they have got away with it and can continue to abuse you?

After sentencing

If the abuser is sent to prison, you can get support for yourself from support groups, such as the women’s education and support groups run by Women’s Refuges.

Learn more by visiting the website of the District Courts of New Zealand.

Resources:

Fresh Start: A Practical Guide for Women Wanting to be Free From Abusepdf

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