‘More humane’ family courts planned

Families and children caught up in legal disputes will have a more humane, less costly, and more expert court system under proposed constitutional reforms.

The measure is part of a major shakeup of the legal system drawn up by Justice Minister Alan Shatter and agreed by the Cabinet.

The reforms also include possible significant changes, including limits, in relation the power of the President to refer laws to the Supreme Court.

Mr Shatter said a referendum would be held to change the Constitution allowing the Oireachtas set up new courts, including a Court of Civil Appeal, and a new Family Court structure.

Mr Shatter said the Supreme Court was “overwhelmed” with civil appeals from the High Court, with waiting lists of up to three years. He said the new Court of Civil Appeal would help to address this problem.

He said the current family courts system was “fragmented” with the three courts — district, circuit, and high court — each dealing with separate family issues, ranging from maintenance applications and custody issues to child abductions.

“It’s about humanising the courts system and ensuring that the judges dealing with cases have the skills and training to do so,” he said.

Speaking at the publication of the Courts Service 2011 annual report yesterday, Mr Shatter said the new system “should be more user friendly and should make things less costly”.

He said while many judges dealt very well with family cases, not all judges were trained in the area.

“It’s important the judiciary have special skills, so when individuals go to family court, they know there’s going to be a degree of consistency of approach.”

He said the new system would also have the necessary back-up, including welfare services that would conduct assessments and mediation services that would provide alternatives to courts.

Mr Shatter said the Government was also considering amendments to the Constitution on a range of other issues, which he said he wanted debated publicly.

These include proposals regarding the President’s power to refer legislation to the Supreme Court, such as:

* Changing the current system whereby once the Supreme Court upholds the law, it can never again be challenged;

* Proposing that after a certain period it would be possible to raise a constitutional challenge to the law;

* Giving the Supreme Court the power to reject a referral from the President.

Mr Shatter said he was considering amendments which would enable the Government to refer international agreements, such as EU treaties, to the Supreme Court for an advisory ruling on whether or not they were in agreement with the Constitution.

The final issue being considered is the provision of an optional secular, rather than religious, judicial declaration on appointment.

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