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Group ‘united’ on changes to Family Courts Bill
Peter Doyle (Pic: Cian Redmond)

25 Jun 2024 / family law Print

Group ‘united’ on changes to Family Courts Bill

A group of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and bodies representing the legal profession – including the Law Society – have called for “urgent” changes to be made to the Family Courts Bill 2022.

They warn that, without the changes, children, couples experiencing relationship breakdown, and survivors of domestic violence will continue to face what they describe as “rough justice” in the family courts.

As well as the Law Society, the group includes Women’s Aid, Rape Crisis Network Ireland, Safe Ireland, One Family, Treoir, Dublin Solicitors Bar Association, Cork Family Lawyers Association, and Clinical Assessors in Family Law Ireland CLG.

‘Guiding principle’

In a statement, the group says that the organisations involved are united in their view that the bill cannot achieve its aims without important changes.

It has put forward suggestions for improvements in three main areas:

  • Safety,
  • Alternative dispute resolution (ADR), and
  • A proposal to move divorce, separation, cohabitation, and civil-partnership cases to the District Court.

On safety, the group says that the family courts currently offer inadequate facilities, waiting areas, and processes to protect children, couples experiencing relationship breakdown, and survivors of domestic violence from unsafe situations.

It wants the bill to include a ‘guiding principle’ to deal with safety for all parties –including safe outcomes and safe processes.

ADR exceptions

The group describes ADR as “a necessary, and often positive, tool” in family-law cases, when properly resourced.

It adds, however, that there are circumstances in which ADR cannot be expected to be used, citing cases involving domestic violence, which includes sexual violence within a relationship and coercive control. The group is calling for these exceptions to be “explicitly stated” in the bill.

The group also believes that the proposed move of divorce, separation, cohabitation, and civil-partnership cases to what it describes as “the already over-burdened and over-stretched District Court” will make things worse, not better.

“The Family Courts Bill should be amended to retain divorce, separation, cohabitation, and civil-partnership cases in the Circuit Court, and also to invest in reform of the existing District Family Court, rather than duplicate the system that already exists in the Circuit Family Court,” the statement says.

‘Clear signal’

Peter Doyle (chair of the Law Society’s Family and Child Law Committee, pictured) said that, while everyone who worked in the family-justice system welcomed the progress being made in the bill, the shared concerns of these diverse groups “should send a clear signal that it is not yet fit for purpose”.

He described the proposed amendments as ”practical and achievable”, and urged the Minister for Justice Helen McEntee to meet the group.

Clíona Saidléar (executive director, Rape Crisis Network Ireland) stated that survivors of sexual and domestic violence – including children – must be at the centre of family-courts reform.

“Amongst many challenges faced by those navigating this system, delay in the system, is one of the most impactful. Part of the answer is increasing capacity and resourcing, the lack of which is exacerbating the problems inherent in the system.

“This bill’s proposed solution to utilise the District Courts more is concerning, given the volume and complexity of family cases that will be transferred to it. We can see many risks in this proposal alongside highly uncertain wins,” she concluded.

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