Thursday, 10 September 2020

Questions (5)

Sorca Clarke


5. Deputy Sorca Clarke asked the Minister for Justice the impact of Covid-19 on the District Family Court service schedule; and when sittings are expected to return to full capacity. [22856/20]

View answer

Oral answers (11 contributions) (Question to Justice)

While most crime decreased over Covid, domestic violence recorded the largest increase. What impact has this had on the schedule of out family courts and when are sittings expected to return to full capacity? The impact these services have on those living with domestic violence cannot be overstated and they need to be put back in place as soon as possible.

I thank the Deputy for raising what is an extremely important issue. She is correct that we have unfortunately witnessed a significant increase in domestic violence through the Covid months, due to the fact that many people have been at home and have had no other place to go for safety.

Under the provisions of the Courts Service Act 1998, management of the courts is the responsibility of the Courts Service but I will outline where we are currently. I welcome the fact that the family law courts are continuing to sit. Throughout Covid, even with the diminished capabilities in the Courts Service they continued to prioritise urgent matters. Specifically, these were family-related matters but also domestic abuse. However, for the safety of everyone concerned, court business has been and must continue to be conducted in accordance with public health guidelines. As a result, there have been changes to the administration of the business of each court to ensure public safety. The net effect is that, unfortunately and regrettably, fewer cases can be listed every day in order to ensure that maximum attendance levels in courthouses are not exceeded.

The Courts Service has been working to reduce Covid-19 related waiting times. The existing courts video link has been extended to facilitate remote court sittings and we have in particular tried to prioritise and focus this on families where parents have perhaps not been able to get to court. I was glad to make an application, in which we were successful, to receive an additional €5 million for the Courts Service to increase the number of courtrooms and supports available throughout this pandemic.

The Courts Service has advised that regular business in the District Courts, which the Deputy mentioned in her question, has resumed as much as is safely possible since 1 September. These measures will however be constantly reviewed in line with public health guidelines and may be subject to change as the guidelines change or experience suggests changes are required. The Courts Service website has further details on that. Individuals represented by a solicitor should contact them to discuss their situation but if a case is particularly urgent and there is no legal representation, local court offices can explain how an early date for court can be obtained. Again, this is where there is a family-related matter or a case of domestic abuse.

My Department is actively working to deliver much needed modernisation of the family law system in Ireland. This modernisation includes the introduction of a new family court Bill and the development of a dedicated family court system.

The enormous impact on the lives of people across the country is particularly evident in those who seek access to the family courts. How will the family court and family law Bill the Minister mentioned address the adversarial nature of family law proceedings? It has to be available to anyone who needs it. This includes the reassurance of access to barring, safety and protection orders but also the other side of family court cases: access to children, guardianship and maintenance payments. Women's Aid said they have experienced a 43% increase in calls to their helpline. The Garda attempted to contact more than 8,000 people living in a dangerous environment. These areas also need additional resources. Will the Minister give a guarantee or commitment that any service dealing with those who live with domestic abuse will see an increase in the resources being made available to them to meet that increase in demand?

I thank the Deputy. We could perhaps look at it in two ways.

The intention throughout Covid-19 has been that urgent cases relating in particular to family law and domestic violence will be prioritised by the courts, which they have been since the beginning of the pandemic. I am aware of issues because people in my constituency have contacted me about child access arrangements where perhaps one parent has used Covid-19 as a reason not to allow somebody to see their child. This is absolutely wrong. Restrictions brought in due to Covid-19 do not stop orders being implemented and should not be used as an excuse by any party. Every effort has been made, in particular since 1 September and the reopening of the various courts, to protect the most vulnerable people.

The courts are adopting measures to schedule court days in accordance with business so people are told when they will be heard in order that they can come at that particular time. This had often been a challenge previously. There are variations in the volume of work that can be safely carried out in the District Courts as some of the buildings have a greater capacity. We have introduced video links so people can have access to the courts without actually going in and seeing the person they are in court with.

What is the current backlog in the family court service? What are the actual numbers? Does the Minister have this information to hand?

Can it be provided?

The Deputy has a minute to put her question.

Can that information be provided? What is the current backlog in the family court services? These figures represent people in crisis. Otherwise they would not be in the family court service to begin with. We have an obligation to ensure any support these individuals and families need is put in place as soon as possible.

I do not have the figures to hand. As I mentioned, management of the courts' services is a matter for the courts but I can certainly ask for and seek that information. I know every effort has been made to try to ensure that urgent cases involving the most vulnerable people in complex family situations and victims of sexual and domestic abuse have been seen. From 1 September, a huge amount of work has been done by the Chief Justice, the various presidents of the courts and the Department on seeking additional funding to support the courts in resuming services as much as possible. When I spoke to the Chief Justice prior to the summer recess his intention was that the courts would resume with a capacity of 70% to 80% in the autumn. This is the objective he wants to achieve.

With regard to the family courts Bill, I hope to have the heads of the Bill before the Government in the coming week or two. It will be quite a large Bill and I look forward to engaging with the Deputy on it.

The specific family court at Hammond Lane will be a significant development. I was pleased to be able to announce additional funding for it earlier in the summer and work will progress as soon as possible.

I thank Deputy Clarke, who is well within her time. If we move on like this, a lot of Deputies will get in.