Family law system must address waiting lists and overworked judges, committee hears

Dr Carol Coulter

How courts deal with family law cases should be overhauled, with the current system characterised by lengthy waiting lists, overworked judges and out-of-date surroundings, an Oireachtas Committee has heard.

Representatives of the Bar Council, Treoir, Arc Mediation and the Child Care Law Reporting Project (CCLRP) addressed the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice about reform of the family law system, which Dr Carol Coulter of the CCLRP described as "the poor relation in the legal system for far too long".

She suggested specialist judges trained in family law and between 12 and 15 dedicated regional centres that could deal with family law cases, rather than "overcrowded district courts".

Dr Róisín O’ Shea, partner Arc Mediation, agreed and stressed the need to ensure "parity of treatment for both parents in our courts", adding: "Non-resident parents are overwhelmingly fathers in Ireland, and their role as parents is generally not supported by the current approach of the courts."

Damien Peelo, CEO of Treoir, the National Federation of Services for Unmarried Parents and their Children, said: "Fathers feel disenfranchised from the system."

Dr Ruth Barrington, Treoir chairperson, said the Civil Registration Act provided that the father's name would be on birth certificates and was passed but has not been commenced.

She said she understood the General Registry Office had argued that it did not have the resources but she added that Ireland was the last country in western Europe that does not require the father's name on a birth cert.

Carol Coulter referred to a case covered by the CCLRP recently case regarding a child whose care placement had broken down.

The child had been in the mother's care and the father was willing to take responsibility, but the Committee heard that because he was not a guardian, the court did not have the legal basis to consider his position.

In addition, he was just outside the earnings threshold for legal aid.

She said this was just one instance where there was a gap that was "very detrimental" to both the rights of the father and the child.

She said a solution would be to remove or significantly increase the means threshold for legal aid.

Maria Corbett of the CCLRP said family drug and alcohol courts, which operate in other countries, could also work here.

She also referred to Brexit, with the move of the UK from being party to EU regulations and instead becoming a "third party".

She said this would create uncertainty, especially given cases in which Irish children were placed in care placements in the UK, with the likelihood of bilateral arrangements.

Bar Council member Sean O'hUallachain said Brexit would present issues but probably not in the short term, adding that he believed the Department of Justice is looking at ways of mitigating the possible effects.

One example could be the enforcement of maintenance, in which between 250 and 300 instances could arise in the course of a year, with a statutory instrument being considered by the Department.

He also referred to "very, very unsuitable" locations where family law cases are heard in the capital, while he said many of the district court settings outside of Dublin "belong to a different era".

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