29th October, 2019
The Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice and Equality last week called for a major overhaul of the family law system.
It wants urgent status for long-promised legislation for the establishment of a dedicated and integrated family court within existing court structures.
Specialised family courts are commonplace in other jurisdictions.
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.
The judiciary, lawyers and court staff should also receive comprehensive specialist training, it says.
The report on reform of family law system makes 38 recommendations in total and has now been sent to the Minister for Justice and Equality Charlie Flanagan.
Among the main recommendations are:
- 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 rules and 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 (ADR), 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 Committee acknowledges that family law proceedings are very stressful for the parties, particularly where there are children involved.
It believes that lawyers and family law courts should advise the parties at the outset that the end result will be a court-imposed decision relating to their entitlements to assets and custody or access rights in respect of children.