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Dublin: 6 °C Tuesday 21 January, 2020

Childcare court case worries: Families 'cheek-by-jowl' with prisoners, and a huge volume of cases

In one court on one day, with just one judge, there were 139 cases listed, consisting of crime, general civil law, and child care.

Child Witness Room in the Courts of Criminal Justice, Parkgate Street, Dublin.
Child Witness Room in the Courts of Criminal Justice, Parkgate Street, Dublin.
Image: Sasko Lazarov/Photocall Ireland

PRIVACY AND CAPACITY are among the concerns that the courts face in handling family law cases, a report has said,and suggested a dedicated Family Court.

The Child Care Law Reporting Project, led by Dr Carol Coulter, was published today.

One of the “most striking” issues that the report highlights is the volume of cases dealt with by certain courts, and the difficulties this posed both for the judges attempting to deal with childcare cases.

For example, in one court on one day, where there is just one sitting judge, there were 139 cases listed, consisting of crime, general civil law, family law and child care.

“In another District, the judge can have over 120 cases listed on family law days.”

Another serious problem, which is related to the overcrowding issue, is privacy.

Under the in camera rule (meaning only those involved in the legal process can attend, and media and members of the public cannot), all family law proceedings including child care, must be confidential to the parties and their lawyers. 

“Yet in many courts privacy can be limited, with all litigants and witnesses milling around in large open areas outside the courtrooms, often discussing their cases here with their lawyers.

This is exacerbated when family law and child care take place on the same day as crime and civil matters, as the volume of people is greater and family law litigants are cheek-by-jowl with prisoners in handcuffs awaiting criminal proceedings.
In some of the smaller courts there is no waiting area at all, and litigants, along with their lawyers, have to wait in cramped hall-ways, sit on stairs, stand outside the court or wait in nearby hotels. 

Physical conditions in the different courts also varied widely.

In some courts, there were no ramps or lifts, so that access for children’s buggies was difficult.

In only a minority of courthouses are there separate areas where family law is dealt with, along with an adequate number of consulting rooms.
Basic comforts, like water dispensers and vending machines for beverages and snacks, are the exception rather than the rule. In a few courts the acoustics were poor.

A total of 292 child care cases were dealt with in the 35 courts attended, an average of 8.3 per day, three-quarters of them in other lists along with other cases.

Of the 292 cases, 156 (53.5%) were extensions of interim care orders. Forty-six (16%) were reviews of care orders, with the other cases involving initial interim care orders, access matters, appointments of guardians ad litem, extensions of care orders, supervision orders, lifting the in camera rule, a child returning from the UK or requiring detention, and after-care plans. Fifty-one cases (17.5%) were adjourned.

There are 64 judges on the District Court; 44 judges are assigned to a location and 20 are “moveable” judges, who can be called in to any district to assist with lengthy or complex cases. 

Dr Coulter explained that “it is clear from the above review of all the districts that in some of them the courts are severely over-worked, which cannot but have an effect on how child care proceedings are dealt with.

Most districts have only one judge to deal with sometimes enormous lists, which include criminal and civil matters as well as large volumes of private family law.

“In a quarter of the courts we attended, child care was included in general lists, meaning that vulnerable families had to attend court along with those accused of crime.

Even where child care is included in family law lists, there can be a danger of tense and aggressive scenes around the court, especially where there are allegations of domestic violence. 

“Specialist family courts, with specially trained judges and court staff, in a number of venues around the country, would mean that what are often vulnerable families could have their cases dealt with sensitively in a suitable environment, where their privacy would be assured.”

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