Thank you, a Cheann Comhairle, for allowing me to raise this issue on the Adjournment. I wish to remove the major plank of the Minister's defence, which seems to be his defence on all issues raised, that Fianna Fáil was in Government for seven years and did not deal with the matter. Fine Gael is now in Government and the Minister is charged with responsibility to tackle the problems I am about to raise.
To say that arrangements for family law hearings are in a state of crisis is a charitable understatement. In the first 12 months after the passing of the Judicial Separation Act, 1989, there were more than 1,000 applications before the Circuit Court directly arising from the Act. Business has increased steadily since. For example, in the Dublin Circuit Family Court alone, the number of applications for judicial separation each year is now in excess of 400. This new branch of law with all its attendant problems and difficulties was simply loaded on to the existing legal system without any commensurate funding to provide the facilities and personnel to cope with it properly, and successive governments were responsible for that.
The physical condition of many courts outside Dublin is not appropriate for family cases. There are many Circuit and District Court venues which do not have adequate space to accommodate family law cases. On many occasions opposing spouses are left seated opposite each other on benches in cold and draughty corridors, as there are no proper waiting room facilities. Adequate facilities for consultation between lawyers and clients are the exception rather than the rule. Many Circuit Court houses have insufficient lighting, leaking roofs, ill fitting windows and inadequate heating and some of them do not even have toilets.
The Circuit Courts are jammed with a backlog of family law cases. The number of judges available to deal with family law hearings is grossly inadequate and, in many cases, the judge is totally unfitted to deal with this sensitive area. Even where that is not true, judges are forced to make the impossible choice between brief and hurried hearings or intolerable delays. In many cases hasty judgments are made after the briefest hearing.
Large numbers of cases which come before the courts would be better addressed by some mechanism other than court determination, perhaps counselling, mediation or conciliation, but unfortunately the system does not lend itself to that. In Dublin where the problems are less acute than elsewhere there is a waiting list of 15 months between the time a judicial separation application is made and when it finally comes to be heard. In Limerick, the backlog is so great that last week Judge Kevin O'Higgins was faced with 59 cases to resolve on a one day sitting. In Trim 69 cases were listed for hearing in the Circuit Court on the last family law sitting day and the corresponding number in Dundalk was 88.
It is salutary and sobering to consider the circumstances of the applicants, almost invariably women, during these waiting periods. Many are living in fear because they feel that if they apply for a barring order the evidence will be insufficient to enable them to succeed. Even those who are not living in fear of violence are often suffering great mental cruelty and unhappiness. Some have abandoned the home and are living from day to day in women's refuges. Many are existing on social welfare.
If the Government intends to introduce divorce into the present system, chaos will be piled upon chaos and the system will break down irrevocably. Does the Government intend to implement the recommendations of the recent Law Reform Commission report on family law prior to the introduction of divorce?
I will not outline those recommendations, time precludes me from so doing. Reform will have to be accompanied by the appointment of at least eight Circuit Court judges to deal specifically with family law, and a massive transfer of resources to upgrade and improve facilities.
However, if these steps are not taken prior to the introduction of divorce and the explosion of new business to which it will inevitably give rise, then a "yes" vote in the forthcoming divorce referendum will not give people the right to seek divorce. It will only give them the illusion they have such a right and for many it will be a theoretical right only.