Wednesday, 20 November 2019

Ceisteanna (8)

Jim O'Callaghan

Ceist:

8. Deputy Jim O'Callaghan asked the Minister for Justice and Equality the way in which he plans to respond to the report by the Oireachtas Committee on Justice and Equality calling for reform of the family law system; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [47616/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (7 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Justice)

Earlier this year, the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality had extensive hearings about the family law system in this country. It published a report in October that contained a number of recommendations on how the family law system could be transformed and improved. The recommendations had wide positive reception from a variety of different groups. What is the Minister's proposal in respect of that report? Will he be prepared to implement any of the recommendations?

I ask the Minister to be mindful of the time. We are trying to get five more questions in.

I will do it within the time provided. I welcome the recent publication of this very comprehensive report of the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality, of which the Deputy is a member and which is chaired by Deputy Ó Caoláin. I acknowledge the importance of the committee's work and congratulate the committee on the important level of public engagement that has taken place in the context of the report. My Department is particularly focused on the reform of the family law system in Ireland. Collaborative work at a cross-functional level is taking place in my Department, examining the policy, legislation and governance aspects of the modernisation of the family law system in Ireland. That modernisation includes the introduction of a new family court Bill and the development of a dedicated family court system. In addition, a task force comprising senior officials from my Department, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, the Legal Aid Board and the Courts Service has been formed to seek agreement on core questions of policy and cost.

The proposals being developed are very much in line with the recommendations made by the committee in its report. For example, work is at an advanced stage on the general scheme of the proposed family court Bill to enable the creation of a new dedicated family court within the existing court structures. Central to the proposed legislation is the idea that family courts will have new procedures aimed at less adversarial resolution of disputes and will have appropriate facilities and case management arrangements. I believe that this approach is very much in line with some of the key recommendations of the committee in its report. The report's recommendations are timely with regard to initiatives that I have at an advanced stage.

Everyone in this House will probably recognise, although they may not appreciate it as much as the Minister or I, the stress associated with family law cases. People go to court and it is a stressful event. When people go to court in family law cases, it is enormously stressful, and it has long-term impacts. The decisions of the court stay with people until the end of their lives, especially when children are involved. It is imperative to have a system in place that ensures that there is respect for and recognition of the fact that these are extremely stressful and traumatic experiences for people who are before the courts. I welcome that the Minister says that a family court Bill will be produced. We need to look on a more basic level at the services available to people who are before the courts. It is completely inappropriate that people who are involved in stressful litigation in the courts have to talk to their lawyers in a corridor because they do not have appropriate consultation rooms. We would not allow that for any other service in the State. We need to invest more in the family law courts and those processes. What proposals does the Minister have for Hammond Lane, where we are supposed to have a family law court?

The development of sensible, comprehensive and sensitive family law procedures, particularly for vulnerable families, will be central to the new system. I will be proposing to Government within coming weeks that these procedures should encompass access to appropriate information and advice regarding the law and the important matter of alternative dispute resolution services such as mediation. This reflects the thinking underlying the committee's recommendations. The report also references the need for improved court structures and facilities. In this regard the Government is already committed to building a new family law centre and children's court complex in Dublin 7. The Government's infrastructure and capital investment plan provides for the development of these at the Hammond Lane site in a central Dublin location. Deputy O'Callaghan will be aware that under the provisions of the Courts Service Act 1998, management of the courts, including the provision of accommodation, is a matter for the Courts Service. However, I am very keen that progress be reported on this new centre. Some €80 million in capital funding has been made available for this important priority project.

I welcome what the Minister says but I think that we need to do something with Hammond Lane. Ms Angela Denning, who is the Accounting Officer for the Courts Service, was before the Committee of Public Accounts last week. From what she said, we understand that Hammond Lane is being used as a site depot for other builders who are doing work in the vicinity of Smithfield. We need Government commitment to develop this site so that we can have full, proper family law courts there. We need to look at judges. We need greater training for judges who are dealing with family law cases. More importantly, we need more judges to deal with these issues. Most of these cases are before the District Court and Circuit Court. When one sees citizens in Phoenix House, one can see that the facilities there at present are completely unacceptable. We need to modernise our family law courts. As we mentioned in our report, ultimately, a court-imposed solution on a family is no substitute for an agreed, mediated settlement between the family. We should be trying to ensure that they stay away from adversarial processes and that we can have a mediated settlement to resolve disputes.

I want to see the Hammond Lane project started and completed at the earliest opportunity. I met people from the Courts Service about this last week. Deputy O'Callaghan will understand that there are a number of interested parties, including the Office of Public Works, the National Development Finance Agency, the Courts Service and my own Department. I am keen to ensure that we see progress here.

By way of general reply to the question, I acknowledge that I have only touched on some of recommendations contained in the committee's report, given the limited time available to me. I confirm that I am committed to the principle that families need to be at the centre of the redesigned family law system. I am keen to ensure that, over coming weeks, we will see progress on the general scheme of a new Bill in that area. Once again, I thank the committee for its report, which comes at a very timely moment in my consideration of these urgent and important matters.