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'Cramped, grim courts are no place for children': Calls for improved family courts to be rolled out

The Law Society of Ireland says a 21st century approach to family law is needed.

Image: Shutterstock/kramynina

FAMILY COURTS IN Ireland are grim places, to say the least.

Family Courts operate up and down the country, in every small town and city in Ireland.

Unlike other court sittings, you can’t just walk in, take a seat and watch what’s going on.

This court deals with sensitive and personal matters, including (but not limited to) divorce, custody, child maintenance, domestic violence and children in state care.

For a number of years, this court was shrouded in mystery. Only judges, lawyers and the families affected were allowed to attend. Three years ago, the rules changed and the public finally got an insight into what happened behind the closed doors of the courts – as the media were allowed in, in a limited capacity.

In the capital, all family court hearings used to take place at Dolphin House in the Temple Bar area of Dublin – but many have now been moved to a nearby building. Domestic violence applications are still heard at the Dublin 2 courts, however.

On a typical day – before the new building came into use – there would be countless babies, toddlers and older children waiting in the lobby with one or both parents, who were there to deal with some incredibly difficult situations.

In the system, on any given day, some children are with parents who are fighting over custody issues. Others are there with a mother or father who may be faced with the prospect of having their children removed from their custody. Others still are there with a parent who has experienced an incident of domestic violence the day before.

A judge’s schedule is filled for the day, as they try to make it through the backlog of cases.

While families wait to be called, the children remain confined to their surroundings. As a reporter who covered the courts, I witnessed children sitting on the floor playing (as there were no seats available outside the cramped courtrooms). Others would run around after each other, dodging in between the solicitors there to fight their parents’ cases.

There were no play rooms, family rooms, no child-friendly drawings or images on the walls, nothing to alleviate the reality that this is a court which can be very daunting for a small child going through a very difficult time.

Facilities for the 21st century 

And this is just in Dublin. Currently, family law cases are held in special court offices in Dublin, but regionally, they are held in District Courts on certain days of the month.

Calls have now been made by the Law Society of Ireland for the government to roll out improved family courts.

In its annual report, the solicitors’ regulatory body said a key area of concern was the lack of government action on creating a network of dedicated family law facilities.

“The personal and vulnerable nature of this area of law demands a 21st century approach to catering for the needs of those dealing with some of life’s most challenging circumstances – divorce, custody and child safety,” noted the Law Society of Ireland report.

The Courts Services, those in the legal profession and judges have long been calling for better facilities for family courts.

Four years ago, it was announced that a referendum to establish a new dedicated Family Court system would be needed. One year later, the Department of Justice said a vote to amend the Constitution was not necessary.

At the time, Barnardos called on the government to deliver on its promises to implement a court structure for family matters, stating that the system as it stands is “not adequate”.

It said the district and circuit courts were overburdened, insisting that a new court system must be rolled out.

The Department of Justice said it was in consultation with the judiciary and the Attorney General, with the aim of publishing a general scheme for the Family Law Courts Bill and enacting the Bill in the first half of 2015.

Family friendly facilities 

Speaking at a seminar in 2013, the former Justice Minister Alan Shatter said that the new court system should have adequate private consultation rooms and a co-located welfare and assessment service, as well as court mediation facilities.

However, he warned that establishing such a court could take years.

There was movement in July of this year, when it was announced that a new court complex would deliver the long-awaited modern family law court.

“A visit to the courts can be a very stressful experience and I am very conscious of the concerns expressed by the judiciary, legal practitioners and victims groups in relation to the poor state and set-up of many Family Court facilities,” Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan said, at the launch of the Courts Service Annual Report.

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He added:

The development of a new purpose-built Family Law and Children’s Court complex on the Hammond Lane site was included as one of the key Justice Sector projects in the Government’s Infrastructure and Capital Investment Plan 2016 to 2021

Fine Gael TD Josepha Madigan said a new Family Court complex was vital and much-needed.

“Cramped facilities for Family Court users need to end,” the Dublin TD said.

The proposed Family Court Complex represents a new departure, with a specialist building in the heart of Dublin. It will allow the Irish courts to better deal with the large number of family law cases that come through our legal system and to better cater for the needs of families and children going through the legal process.

The establishment of a dedicated family court will require the passing of the Family Courts Bill – but the legislation is unlikely to get over the line for some time.

Minister Flanagan has said further legislative initiatives are planned, which will include the roll out of additional courts facilities, particularly in Dublin, for the hearing of family law and childcare applications.

“Overall the number of courtrooms dedicated to District Court family law in Dublin increased from five to seven since October 2016 with a consequential positive impact on waiting times,” he said.

He said the government is committed to significant reform of the courts, including the establishment of a family law court structure that is streamlined, more efficient, and less costly.

And on the Family Court Bill, which the department said it would like enacted in 2015?

The minister said he hopes consultation with all relevant stakeholders will be completed soon, and the Bill can be approved by government in the coming months.

Once the General Scheme has been approved by government, it will be referred to the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel for drafting and will be subject to the usual pre-legislative scrutiny by the relevant Oireachtas committee.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said the heads of the Bill will be published in this Dáil session.

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