The Law Society of Ireland said much-heralded government plans to modernise the structure had still yet to materialise.
Speaking ahead of a conference today, the Law Society called on the Government to deliver on its commitments and prioritise the modernisation of the family law courts system.
The society said there was an “urgent need” to upgrade inadequate facilities, fully implement legislation already passed and look abroad for successful systems.
“One key area that is causing much harm and frustration within the community is the courts system that exists for hearing family law matters,” said Ken Murphy, Law Society director general. “Family breakdown, child custody and protection of minors — these are some of the most difficult and sensitive court proceedings that exist.”
He said it was more than 20 years since the Law Reform Commission, the State’s research body, recommended a specialised court structure for family law matters.
He said the commitment to introduce such was made in the last programme for government.
“An unpublished bill relating to this commitment is listed on the Department of Justice and Equality website, but here we are in 2017 with little progress made.”
Mr Murphy said the problems were piling up: “Meanwhile case-loads increase, unacceptable delays are experienced and inadequate facilities are utilised that simply can’t provide for the needs of clients given the confidential nature of these cases.”
He said it was not a case of just having another building: “The system as a whole needs urgent review, including the provision of dedicated and experienced judges, with the appropriate administrative support structures to improve the capacity and efficiency of the system.”
He said: “The complex nature of legal proceedings and the experience of engaging with the courts can be stressed for those involved – our role as solicitors is to support our clients, interpret the law and assist in the resolution of the consequences of relationship breakdown.”
He said Legal Aid Board figures for last September show that waiting times for first consultations at law centres were 37 weeks at Cork South Mall Law Centre, 29 weeks at Longford Law Centre and 29 weeks at Blanchardstown Law Centre.
Child law expert Dr Geoffrey Shannon, a member of the society’s family and child law committee, said family cases are typically heard in the district and circuit courts.
“These courts do not have specialised facilities to deal with the sensitive nature and needs of clients going through difficult and personal proceedings,” he said.
“The system as a whole needs urgent review, including the provision of dedicated and experienced judges, with the appropriate administrative support structures to improve the capacity and efficiency of the system.”
He said the lack of adequate consultation rooms in court facilities means that “quite personal and emotional discussions” between solicitors and clients are held in corridors or outside courthouse.