‘A warzone’: What it’s like to be part of a Family Court custody battle

Nobody expects their relationship to spill into a long Family Court dispute, but thousands in Aotearoa resort to this measure every year. 

The experience can be brutal for those involved, with the proceedings often being compared to warfare between people who once loved each other. 

The impact is particularly harsh on children, who could face years of watching their parents embroiled in bitter disputes with antagonism just growing stronger over time. 

NZ Herald senior writer Jane Phare has spent months investigating Family Court cases, talking to families, psychologists, lawyers and judges who have all experienced this system firsthand. 

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The Front Page: The brutal reality of Family Court in New Zealand

Damien Venuto

25 Aug, 2023 06:36 AM – 3 mins to read.

When the wedding organ invites the bride down the aisle, no one expects the joyous walk to end in a brutal battle in Family Court.

And yet, thousands of couples resort to this measure every year to settle disputes that have often dragged on for years.

The impact is particularly harsh on children, who could face years of watching their parents embroiled in antagonism that just grows stronger over time.

NZ Herald senior journalist Jane Phare has been investigating this issue for months, talking to the families, psychologists, lawyers and judges who have seen the inner workings of this system first-hand.

“The Family Court is an extremely busy court,” Phare tells The Front Page podcast.

“They’re dealing with about 55,000 cases a year. They’ve got 64 judges, and it’s costing more than $316 million a year, of which $23m is just judges’ salaries. That money also covers legal aid, lawyers for [children], supervised access, psychology reports and staff. It’s a big organisation.”

In reporting on this system, Phare has often described the Family Court as a warzone with regard to the nature of the disputes.

“It’s an adversarial rather than inquisitorial system, and that’s the problem. So you’re pitting parent against parent, lawyer against lawyer. And children are witnessing what essentially becomes a war that can go on for years.”

The costs of a dispute like this quickly escalate to the point where even people with a large war chest of funds can become overwhelmed.

“In one case, I spoke to a father who had spent $500,000 in the Family Court and still didn’t have access to his daughter,” says Phare.

The system can also be brutal to those not as fortunate to have large sums of money.

“The thresholds for legal aid are quite low, so in one case, a mother had to lend money to her daughter so she could keep fighting her case because she no longer qualified. I do think there’s an advantage if you have money. In the cases that I spoke to, both men and women had to walk away in the end and just give up.”

The psychological trauma of this on everyone involved can be enormous, but children often take the brunt of it.

“Deep down, the parents probably know it’s not good for their children, but they just can’t let it go. They have a point to make – they want to get at back at their partner or they don’t want to lose. They just keep going and fighting.”

  • So, what long-term impact does this have on children?
  • How do we improve this system?
  • Are there ways to stop cases from spiralling into Family Court litigation?
  • And what impact does this have on the legal professionals involved?

For the full story and details on some stories that Jane Phare has uncovered, listen to the full episode of The Front Page podcast.

The Front Page is a daily news podcast from the New Zealand Herald, available to listen to every weekday from 5am. It is presented by Damien Venuto, an Auckland-based journalist with a background in business reporting who joined the Herald in 2017.

You can follow the podcast at iHeartRadioApple PodcastsSpotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.



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