24 Oct 2019, 11.00

The Joint Committee on Justice and Equality today calls for a major overhaul of the Family Law System – giving urgent priority to promised legislation for the establishment of a dedicated and integrated Family Court within existing court structures.

The Committee is also urging the Government to provide the necessary funding for a purpose-built family courts complex adjacent to the Four Courts in Dublin and modernisation of family court facilities nationwide.

It is also recommended members of the judiciary, lawyers and court staff receive comprehensive specialist training to ensure those involved in family court proceedings have the specialist supports required.

The Report on Reform of Family Law System makes 38 recommendations in total.

Committee Chairman Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin said that while the Joint Committee of TDs and Senators believed some progress had been made in the reform of the system it was of the view that much more remained to be done. The Members made examination of the Family Law System a priority issue in their Work Programme.

The Committee held a series of meetings in 2019 with stakeholder groups. The primary focus of the Committee hearings was to review the current structures within the family law system and to establish what areas could be improved and strengthened in order to create a more efficient, cost effective system with the lowest levels of trauma for families involved in proceedings.

The Committee also looked at how the family law systems operate in England, Wales and Australia, which have similar common law systems to Ireland, and European models operating in Belgium and France.

Deputy Ó Caoláin said: “Over the course of these engagements, it became abundantly clear that the family law system requires fundamental and ambitious reform. The current system, for a variety of reasons, fails to provide a user-friendly and efficient service to those engaged in it, at what can be an extremely difficult and emotive time in peoples’ lives.

“The Committee has made a number of recommendations, with particular regard to the family court structure, specialisation, transparency, resources, the voice of the child and the imbalances within the court system.”

This report has been sent to the Minister for Justice and Equality.

Other key recommendations of the report include:

  • The Committee calls upon the Minister for Justice and Equality and the Government to make the setting up of specialised family courts, commonplace in other jurisdictions, a matter of urgent legislative priority, backed up with the necessary resources and implementation.
  • A thorough review of the physical infrastructure of family law courts should be carried out, with a view to producing a blueprint for a modern, efficient and family-friendly courts infrastructure. Key ancillary services and agencies, such as legal aid, mediation services, courts and courts offices, should all be housed under one roof.
  • A public information campaign should be launched, similar to that introduced in Australia, to ensure better provision of information about the family law system.
  • Reform of the in camera rulesand establishment on a permanent basis of a dedicated reporting body, to include both public and private family law proceedings, while maintaining the anonymity of parties.
  • Parties to Family Law proceedings should be advised at the outset that they would be exposed to less stress, cost, time and risk if they could reach a settlement amongst themselves through Alternative Dispute Resolution, rather than persisting with an adversarial process in which a Court will ultimately impose a decision that will seek to balance the respective rights and interests of all affected parties.
  • A full review of the legal aid scheme be conducted, with particular regard to means test rates, contribution requirements and eligibility, in order to ensure that the scheme is meeting the needs of those most vulnerable in society. The Committee believes that the current threshold for legal aid needs to be raised significantly.
  • In addition to structural reforms, a substantial increase in the number of judges is essential – particularly at District Court level – to address the backlog of cases and relieve pressure on the judiciary.

The full report is available here on the Oireachtas website.

Note:

The Joint Committee on Justice and Equality held public engagements during 2019 with the following stakeholders:

Children’s Right Alliance; The Law Society of Ireland; Rape Crisis Network Ireland; Dr Conor O’Mahony, School of Law, UCC; Child Care Law Reporting Project; Arc Mediation; Council of the Bar of Ireland; Treoir, Free Legal Advice Centres (FLAC); Men’s Voices Ireland; Dr Kenneth Burns, UCC; Dr Geoffrey Shannon, Social Rapporteur on Child Protection.

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