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'It's in crisis': Law Society raises concerns over security issues in family courts system

Members of the Law Society’s family and child law committee are to appear before the Oireachtas Committee on Justice this morning.

THE LAW SOCIETY of Ireland has this morning raised concerns over security issues in the family courts system. 

Chair of the Law Society’s family and child law committee Keith Walsh has said that the “family courts system is in crisis”. 

“It is chronically underfunded, lawyers and judges are over-stretched, and our clients are often highly vulnerable – children and adults in need of urgent assistance, specialised care and dedicated facilities,” Walsh said in a statement. 

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

Members of the Law Society’s family and child law committee are to appear before a meeting of the Oireachtas Committee on Justice this morning. 

During the committee, the Law Society will highlight issues surrounding inadequate security, unsafe environments for litigants and unsafe working conditions for courts staff, lawyers and judges.

“The Law Society has been highlighting the safety issues within the family courts infrastructure in Dublin and nationwide for several years. Unfortunately, this came to a head during an incident in December 2018 involving a Circuit Court judge, a lawyer and a client in Phoenix House in Dublin,” Walsh said. 

A man has been charged with possessing an imitation firearm at the court in relation to that incident, and the case remains before the courts.

The building, where Judge Susan Ryan of the Circuit Court was presiding, was evacuated and a major security operation took place on 20 December last.

Armed gardaí and a bomb disposal team were called in to deal with an incident which was resolved peacefully.

A man in his mid-forties was arrested, and proceedings in the case are ongoing.

Walsh added that the situation is “particularly bad” in Dublin in terms of the buildings in which the family courts are held. 

“The childcare courts are currently housed in Victorian criminal law courts which are simply not fit for purpose,” he said. 

Specialist division of family law courts

A specialist division of family law courts and judges would help deal with family law cases more efficiently, according to Walsh. 

“It would be more likely that the same judges would be available to deal with cases that appear regularly before the courts and create more consistency,” he said. 

“It is not proposed to change the work undertaken by each court, but that only family law cases would be heard in these courts and they would take the family law cases out of the more general courts.”

 The Law Society is also calling for more focus to be placed on settling cases earlier in the process.

“Very active intervention in family law cases by judges, with an emphasis on resolution and alternative dispute resolution approaches, could result in significant savings in time and resources for all parties,” Walsh said.

 Cost in family law cases

The Law Society has also addressed the issue of costs in family law cases.

“What the Law Society suggests in this regard is that a better way to look at costs is to encourage settlement at every possible opportunity and to improve and increase the focus on case management,” Walsh said.

“If there is any realistic prospect of a coherent policy approach to costs in family law cases, then either legislation or, as we are calling for, a specialist division of family law judges who will apply the law in a consistent manner is required.”

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