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Our family law courts are not fit for purpose and we owe it to children to address this now

CEO of One Family Karen Kiernan says we desperately need a new modern, fit-for-purpose family law system.

Karen Kiernan

A TRIP TO a family law court is rarely a happy occasion and very few people have a wholly positive experience. Many people’s experience goes something like this:

  • Months waiting for a court date.
  • Hours waiting on a hard bench with those appearing in criminal cases.
  • Worries about whether they would be out in time to collect the children from school.
  • Case adjourned yet again at the end of a long day that only came round every few months.
  • Looking at another month with no maintenance being paid and not enough money to pay the bills/no access arrangement in place.

Needing to attend family law courts in Ireland is no joke. In 2019 25% of all queries to our askonefamily helpline related to family law issues while FLAC is inundated with thousands of calls per year.

In 2018 the District Court saw 12,611 applications for guardianship, custody and access and 8,935 application for maintenance, including applications to vary maintenance and seek arrears. 

It is a massively under-resourced system attempting to put a semblance of order on the chaos of family breakdown, conflicts and violence.

Circuit Courts have a slightly more rarefied air dealing with divorces and separations; however, there are constant complaints about the lack of space, privacy and the expensive days sitting around waiting to get into court.

A broken system

Only Dublin has specialist family law court buildings and courtrooms, and these are in desperate need of an upgrade. But the condition of the buildings and under-resourcing is only part of the story. Many families should not end up in court at all but there is a pitiful amount of ‘alternative dispute resolution’ such as mediation available.

There is practically no statutory provision of what is known as ‘ancillary court services’ such as parenting programmes, counselling for parents or children, child contact centres and the like. These services are widely available in other countries, so why not here?

There are constant reports from parents and legal practitioners about the increasing use of specialist reports being ordered by courts to assess parenting capacity, the wishes of the children, and what is in the best interests of children by a dwindling number of assessors.

These assessors may be extremely expert but are not regulated, must be paid privately by parents and their reports are owned by the court.

Frankly, there are so many problems it is hard to imagine how things can improve and many of us try to put small patches on a very broken system but do we need to just start again?

Presumably, the purpose of family law should be primarily to keep children safe; to ensure their best interest is maintained. It should hear their voice as well as those of their parents and assist individual families to reach their own solutions to conflict that they can be motivated to implement and to keep accountability in terms of parents’ responsibilities to their children.

The new programme for government has pledged to:

  • Enact a Family Court Bill to create a new dedicated Family Court within the existing court structure and provide for court procedures that support a less-adversarial resolution of disputes.
  • Build a new Family Law Court building in Dublin and ensure that court facilities across the country are suitable for family law hearings so that these hearings can be held separately from other cases.

This draft Family Law Court Bill has been in play for several years and will provide for specialist family law court times, sittings and buildings across the country which can provide regionally-based specialist Family Law Centres.

This new structure is needed to build other reforms and so will be critical to get passed and funded. However, we need to think bigger and more strategically about how to keep children safe in a modern fit-for-purpose family law system.

Whilst we desperately need this new legislation we actually need to think beyond that, to rise above ‘the way it has always been done’ and any vested interests to develop a Family Law Court system that is wrapped around the needs of children and their families.

We need a Court Welfare Service to provide family supports such as parenting and therapeutic supports, assessments wherever needed for court, child contact centres and mediation.

If we don’t start dreaming big, seeing past the problems and creating this shared vision for the future we can’t get there and how many children will have been left behind as a result?

We can’t afford to wait, children can’t afford for us to wait; we need to start working towards change now. This will require leadership, funding and a clear focus on the outcome – safety for children in all circumstances and in all families.

Karen Kiernan is CEO of the One Family charity.

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Karen Kiernan

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