According to the Department of Justice, the principles set out in the bill are aimed at helping to ensure that the new Family Court system will:
- Make the best interests of the child a primary consideration in all family-law proceedings,
- Operate in an efficient manner, and
- Encourage active case-management at the courts.
The bill also provides for court procedures designed to support a faster and less adversarial resolution of disputes.
New judicial positions
The bill sets up a Family High Court, a Family Circuit Court, and a Family District Court, each dealing with family-law matters appropriate to its jurisdiction.
Judges with suitable training and experience will be assigned on a full-time basis to the Family Court divisions.
New positions of Principal Judge of the Family High Court, Family Circuit Court, and Judge of the Family District Court will be created to manage the new divisions.
"The aim is that the legislation will enable a greater proportion of non-contentious family-law matters to be dealt with at District Court level, thus minimizing the costs for litigants," the Department of Justice said.
Family Court proceedings will be in a different building or room from that in which other court sittings are held, or on different days, or at different times from other court sittings.
In a measure aimed at supporting mediation and alternative dispute-resolution (ADR), the bill will allow for joint applications to be made for judicial separation, divorce, and dissolution of civil partnership.
The legislation will set up a dedicated Family Law Rules Committee, or alternatively, Family Law Sub-Committees of the general Courts Rules Committees, to ensure that the rules of court in relation to family-law proceedings are coherent and applied with consistency.
It will also set out guiding principles to help ensure that the Family Court system will make the best interests of the child a primary consideration in all family-law proceedings, operate in an efficient manner, and encourage active case-management by the courts.
Interests of child 'primary'
The key principles governing the operation of the new system, as laid down by the bill, include:
- The best interests of every child involved, or likely to be affected by, the outcome of family law proceedings shall be a primary consideration in the conduct of the proceedings, and the child's views should be ascertained where practicable and given due weight, having regard to the child's age and maturity,
- The court should encourage and facilitate, as far as possible, the resolution of issues in dispute by means of alternative resolution methods, such as mediation – except in cases where this would not be appropriate, such as domestic violence cases,
- The promotion and engagement by the court in active case-management practices,
- The conduct of proceedings in a manner that is user-friendly for the parties, identifies the issues in dispute, minimises, as far as possible, conflict between the parties, and is just, expeditious, and likely to minimise the costs of those proceedings.
Minister for Justice Helen McEntee said that the bill would be supported by the construction of a purpose-built Family Law Court complex at Hammond Lane in Dublin. She described this as "core" to achieving the transformation of the family justice system.
“The complex will be built with the specific needs of family-law court users in mind and will provide a modern facility where family-law cases can be held in a dignified, secure, and non-threatening environment with a range of support services at hand,” the minister stated.
Last year, she said that she hoped to see construction of the new complex begin in 2023, and that it would be open by “2026 at the latest”.
Long waiting times
The minister added that interactions with the family-justice system often took place when people were at their most vulnerable.
"Unfortunately, the family justice system today does not always offer a smooth transition through these changes in a family's life," she stated.
"Long waiting times to access the court, multiple journeys to court buildings, as well as overly bureaucratic processes, a lack of available information about the system, and at times high legal costs add to the already heavy burden of stress on families," the minister said.
She said that the day (16 November) was an “important milestone” in the process of ensuring that there was a more efficient and user-friendly system.