Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Questions (56)

Peter Fitzpatrick

Question:

56. Deputy Peter Fitzpatrick asked the Minister for Justice and Equality the reason for the delay in the family law Bill coming before Dáil Éireann; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [5653/18]

View answer

Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Justice)

Last week during questions on promised legislation I asked the Minister to update the House on the family law Bill. I stated that fathers and mothers fight over the possibility of having their children removed from their custody. Courts deal with personal and sensitive matters including divorce, custody issues, children in State care, child maintenance and domestic violence. These courts are operating up and down the country, in every small town and city in Ireland. The facilities are inadequate. I have seen at first hand what is happening in these courts.

I acknowledge that Deputy Fitzpatrick has been raising this issue with me for some time. It is an issue that is important to him as a parliamentarian.

The Government remains committed to significant reform of the courts, including the establishment of a family law court structure that is streamlined, more efficient and less costly. My Department is working on the general scheme of a family court Bill which will aim to streamline family law court processes, clarify jurisdictional issues and provide for a set of guiding principles to help ensure the family court will operate in a user-friendly and efficient manner. The intention is to establish a dedicated family court within the existing court structures.

The family court Bill will support the provisions of the Mediation Act 2017 by encouraging greater use of alternative dispute resolution to assist in the more timely resolution of family law cases. As the Deputy will appreciate, it is essential that there is proper planning and consultation with relevant stakeholders in order to ensure the development of a new family court structure can be implemented smoothly and efficiently.

My Department has established a working group comprising officials from my Department, the Courts Service and the Legal Aid Board to examine the operational aspects relating to the family court. The intention is that the working group will develop an overall architecture for the new family court structure. It is consulting with other relevant stakeholders. Key issues arising in consultations include family court venues, facilities, resources, capital investment in family courts and integration of relevant family and child services to provide the best possible family law outcomes.

I hope to secure Government approval in the coming months for the general scheme of a family court Bill. Once the general scheme is approved by the Government, it will be referred to the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel for drafting and to the appropriate Oireachtas committee for pre-legislative scrutiny.

It is over 20 years since the Law Reform Commission recommended a specialist court structure for family law and I welcome that plans in that regard are being progressed. It is welcome that three years ago the rules were changed such that the public now have access to proceedings that previously had taken place behind closed doors, with only judges, lawyers and family members involved in the case allowed to be present.

As I said, I have seen at first hand what happens in these courts and it is not nice. One walks in the door and sees many children running around but no play facilities for them. It is totally inadequate. There may be only one toilet available for the use of all present. All one can see is mothers, fathers, cousins, uncles, aunts and so on all fighting together. The facilities are not suitable for children. The previous Fine-Gael led Government for the first time established the office of a Minister for Children and Youth Affairs. It is very important that we ensure there are adequate family court facilities.

I do not disagree with the points raised by Deputy Fitzpatrick. The programme for Government 2011 to 2016 contained a commitment to establish a distinct and separate system of family courts to streamline the family law court process and make it more efficient and less costly. There has been ongoing negative comment in the media highlighting what are perceived to be the inadequate facilities faced by users of the family courts, including delays, the lack of appropriate waiting areas as outlined by Deputy Fitzpatrick and the issue of child care facilities. Since the 1990s there have been calls for the setting up of a dedicated family court. A series of reports on the matter were published which identified problems in the arrangement of the courts generally and in how the family court system operates. Many of those reports have not been acted upon and I hope to bring proposals to the Government in the coming months in order to advance this very important issue in the context of ensuring a separate and distinct family law division within the courts system.

I thank the Minister. Over the past seven years as a Deputy, I have received many complaints from parents about the state of family courts. As I said, I went to see the situation in such a court first hand. Everything they told me was wrong.

The Minister mentioned structures, venues, facilities and investment and having less costly and more streamlined and user-friendly family law cases. That is to be welcomed and the Minister has had my full support from day one. He is doing a fantastic job. However, family law has been pushed around. In 2015, the then Taoiseach, Deputy Enda Kenny, stated family law reform was one of the biggest reform issues to come before the Government and he was going to give it priority. The matter has been pushed from Billy to Jack. As I said, the Minister has my full support. Children are hugely important for our future. We must ensure they get the support, protection and facilities they need to carry on because what happens in such courts will mark these children for the rest of their lives.

I agree that there are issues to be addressed, including infrastructural issues in terms of court facilities and buildings. We must advert to the need to ensure there is specialist training in family law for those involved in its practice, which would not only focus on the latest developments in legislation and international treaties but also ensure best international practice.

We need to look at information communication technology investment, including appropriate digital audio recording equipment and acoustic systems, to ensure the courts can, where appropriate, hear evidence through video link. Obviously the sensitivity and very personal nature of many of these court cases will involve a certain flexibility and adaptability in responding to needs. Appropriate funding for the Legal Aid Board is necessary to deal with delays in processing applications for legal aid in order that we can shorten the waiting times. I acknowledge that over our lost decade of economic difficulties, this is an area that has not kept pace with needs. I hope we can do that in the context of this year's programme of work.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.