Progress on plans for family courts

Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan

Family break-ups could be handled by dedicated courts with specialist judges under a proposal being worked on by justice officials.

Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan said he would be discussing funding for the initiative with the Minister for Public Expenditure in the coming weeks.

Such a move would be welcomed by lawyers, children’s charities, and human rights groups, who have long called for the creation of a separate family court system.

In most of the country, couples going through separations, divorces, domestic violence applications, and custody and maintenance disputes have to share court sittings and judges with all the other criminal and civil business of the courts at what is often the most fraught time of their lives.

Mr Flanagan said he wanted to ensure that family law cases got the priority they deserved.

I believe it’s important that our family law system is separate and distinct from either the criminal courts or the civil courts,” he said.

“We need to ensure that they are held on a specifically designated day, where possible, with specifically dedicated judges in areas that are reserved for family law cases, recognising the personal trauma and upset that’s visited on people.”

Mr Flanagan said the use of mediation would be a core principle of the new system.

“That, in turn, would have the effect of reducing legal costs, speeding up the resolution of disputes, and, of course, ultimately relieving much of the very evident stress that’s involved for people,” he said.

The minister was speaking at the publication of the Courts Service annual report for 2017 which showed that where mediation was available and offered, one in five family law disputes were resolved without a full court hearing while many other cases had the number of contentious issues reduced before hearing.

Some 655,000 new matters came before the courts last year, 447,000 of them criminal, 92% of which were heard at District Court level.

The higher courts were also busy and while the creation of the Court of Appeal had cut Supreme Court waiting times from 5-7 years to six weeks to a year, there was a knock-on effect, with waiting times in the new court rising to 20 months for civil cases and five months for criminal cases.

It has also emerged that changes to the way the law handles fine defaulters, through the introduction of attachment orders and community service, are beginning to cause headaches for the courts and gardaí with extra appearances having to be scheduled and a sharp increase in the number bench warrants issued.

The matter is expected to come to a head in the coming months as the courts come under pressure from growing backlogs of cases and the additional administrative burden.

Chief Justice Frank Clarke, speaking at the launch, urged the Government to be mindful of the impact on the courts each time new legislation is passed.

“Perhaps we need to move to a situation where we need to identify in advance the demands which new legislation is going to place on the courts so that provision can be made for judicial numbers and back up staff to handle the increased workload that will inevitably flow,” he said.

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