He suggested that mediated settlements have a better long-term chance of success than court orders.
He said that too many cases which are suitable for mediation end up in litigation. This is not “sustainable, desirable or efficient”, he said
The conference heard that the co-location of mediation centres with legal aid offices offers a way forward for difficult family law matters.
Many District Court facilities are inadequate at the moment though improvements are ongoing.
Centre of excellence
Eilis Barry of FLAC told the conference that the push to turn Ireland into a centre of excellence for commercial law should be matched by similar upgrades in family law facilities.
Up to 80% of litigants in the District Court are lay litigants, she said, and FLAC provides 12,000 legal consultations over the telephone each year.
She said that while we are good at passing new legislation in this country, for instance that concerning mediation and domestic violence, providing the resources to implement new laws is a different matter.
Speaker Orla O’Connor of the National Women’s Council of Ireland (NWCI) said that a national spousal maintenance agency should be established so that lone parents could “move out of poverty”.
This proposal is backed by the NWCI but Orla O’Connor admitted that no costings have been done as yet on the proposal.
Increased user-friendliness is a low-cost means of improving access to justice, the conference heard.
Chair of the Family Lawyers Association and senior counsel Sean O hUllachain, said that the Bridewell court is not a suitable setting for family law hearings.
O hUllachain said that while mediation works well in many family law cases, it doesn’t solve all problems. He said there should be an automatic assumption that mediation is the best route in every family law case, he said.
Peter Mullan, head of District and Circuit court operations, said that he understood how bad things are in the family law systems.
“What you say doesn’t go unheard,” he told the conference attendees and said that the Courts Service is aware of the need for improvements in family law courts.
Family law venue Dolphin House in Dublin is a place of a lot of tension, he said.
He said that making family law less adversarial would require a change in mind-set but changes can be achieved.
He said the Courts Service had seen an increase in parents seeking protection against adult children, which was a new development.
Legal Aid Board chief executive John McDaid said that he wasn’t recommending for or against any particular dispute resolution methodology.
How a family matter is dealt with is hugely influenced by the choice of lawyer, as well as other factors such as judge in court.
Dispute resolution pays little attention to causes of disputes, John McDaid pointed out.
In family disputes we don’t pay enough attention to the fact that parents are going to have a relationship for the rest of their lives as they jointly care for their children.
A proper family law system includes good information, and proper signposting he believes.
He said timelines are important and legal aid delays must always be a concern.
As far back as 1996, the Law Reform Commission was recommending family law information centres, to be co-located with legal advice centres.
Department of Justice deputy director general Oonagh Buckley said that the justice system in Ireland is in a period of transformation at the moment, pointing to the Legal Services Regulatory Authority, which will take charge of complaints against solicitors from 7 October.
She said that implementing reforms involves a change in culture and mind-set but that this process is now well underway at the Department of Justice.