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‘First hundred days’ push for radical family law reform
Oonagh Buckley, deputy secretary general at the Department of Justice

02 Jul 2020 / family law Print

‘Hundred days’ push for radical family law reform

A very big change in how the courts handle family law is part of the ‘hundred days’ policy agenda for the new Government, with specialist family law courts key to major reform.

“This is a very substantial change, long-promised and, with a fair wind and a following breeze, we will get it across the line in the next little while,” Oonagh Buckley, barrister and deputy secretary general at the Department of Justice and Equality, said today.

Memorandum

Speaking at a One Family webinar, she said a memorandum on the family law reforms will be taken to Government shortly, after new Justice minister Helen McEntee has been fully briefed.

Oonagh Buckely revealed that a memo was ready last January, before the election was called but there has been a six-month hiatus awaiting the formation of the Government.

“So, if you’ve ever felt that the country could be run without a Government, this is a very live example about why that isn’t actually true,” she said.

“You do need a government to make major policy changes of this nature. 

“What we are proposing is a very big change in the way the courts handle family law so it is important that there is a comprehensive understanding of this at a Government level.”

Structures

A less adversarial approach is central to the new approach in family law District, Circuit and High Court cases, Buckley said.

This is an all-encompassing change in structures, she explained. And she confirmed that additional judges will be appointed.

"We have it in our heads that it's going to mean additional judges so that's part of the proposals, though we have to work through what 'additional' means in this context."

Current court structures will be overhauled to provide for a dedicated family law system.

There will be a District Family Court, a Circuit Family Court and a Family High Court.

Separate division

Oonagh Buckley explained that the family court will be established as a separate division within the existing court structure.

Family law cases will sit in different buildings and won’t be mixed with regular District Court criminal business, for example.

“The active engagement of the judiciary is key to delivering this successfully,” she said.

Peter Mullan of the Courts Service told the webinar that there will be ‘pushing down’ of family law business to District Courts. 

There will be a family law centre in Dublin and 12 others around the country, maximising existing court infrastructure.

Oonagh Buckley said that services must be with reasonable geographic proximity for court users, though Mullan pointed out that there are difficult years ahead financially.

“We as leaders and practitioners can really influence this,” Peter Mullan said.

Leadership

Choosing venues must be done through an objective rather than a provincial lens, and this will require leadership.

“We all have to be leaders in our own spheres,” he said.

He cited incredible innovation in the courts as a result of COVID-19, such as staggering and scheduling cases in 20-minute slots.

“We should be keeping all of that good stuff, to influence the family court bill as it goes through the Oireachtas, and operationalising the improvements.”

Vulnerable adults

The traditional focus on family breakdown in family law will shift to take in other vulnerable family members such as adults with dementia, and other physical or intellectual disabilities, Oonagh Buckley said.

Every attempt will be made to avoid adversarial approaches to family law, and diversion measures will take issues away from court to be resolved at an earlier stage.

Access to specialist supports are a crucial part of the package, she said.

A key policy objective will be to keep family law cases out of the courts.

The new approach requires much more than writing a new piece of legislation, Buckley said.

Guiding principles

The changes will involve a completely new set of guiding principles, to ensure family courts operate in a user-friendly and efficient manner.

This will parallel the reforms expected to come out of Mr Justice Peter Kelly’s review of civil law, which will be published in September, Oonagh Buckley said.

“There will be some aspects of those reforms that flow across into family law reform,” she noted.

 

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