Recent coverage in the media has highlighted the issues that the courts face, in handling family law cases and concerns for privacy and capacity, due to the huge volume of cases some courts are experiencing.
Most of the issues mentioned here, are from The Child Care Law Reporting Project, led by Dr Carol Coulter, which exposes the difficulties of both privacy and capacity, posed for the judges attempting to deal with childcare cases.
Speaking about the findings, she said: “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.”
With regard to the issue of 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.”
A National overview of child care proceedings in the District Court, by the Child Care Law Reporting Project
The report goes on to suggest a dedicated Family Court.
“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.”
Chair of the Law Society's Family and Child Law Committee Keith Walsh said there was agreement that the current family law system was broken and there was an urgent need for a specialist division to be established.
Representatives of the Children's Rights Alliance have also raised serious concerns about the structure of the courts system.
Saoirse Brady of the Alliance said: "Despite the fact that most proceedings involving children are subject to the in camera rule, a large number of court facilities still lack basic privacy.
"From consultations with lawyers, we know that legal advice is sometimes provided in hallways and stairwells, rather than child-friendly consultation rooms."
My own representative body, The Law Society of Ireland, has also called on the Irish Government to deliver on its commitments and prioritise the modernisation of the family law courts system.
Family Law is a dynamic and complex area of law in Ireland, with family breakdown, child custody and protection of minors being some of the most difficult and sensitive court proceedings that exist. I believe the family law system as a whole needs urgent review, including the provision of dedicated and experienced judges, with the appropriate administrative support structures to improve the capacity and efficiency of the system.