Family law courts failing child abuse victims

Committee to hear how family law courts are not fit for purpose

Family law courts failing child abuse victims

The family law courts are not fit for purpose for the victims of child sexual violence, Rape Crisis Network Ireland (RCNI) will tell the Oireachtas justice committee today.

The RCNI will tell the hearing on family law reform that the conviction rate in cases involving children is so low, the ill-equipped civil family law court becomes the avenue through which they are protected.

It will argue that having these cases before such civil courts means information that is in the public interest is never published — such as data on the number of cases that hear allegations of child sexual violence and domestic violence.

The RCNI will call for a special family court, with tailored authority, where all involved in handling cases would have domestic and sexual violence specialisation.

Clíona Saidléar, RCNI executive director, said it is calling “for a commitment to a fit-for-purpose system to deal with child sexual violence in family law matters”.

“A specialist court is needed to ensure the best child protection response,” said Ms Saidléar.

“For many child victims the family is not a safe place, it is the location of the harm. Because the criminal justice system largely fails these children, with between a 90% and 96% failure rate, the protection of these children often becomes the subject of the family law courts, both publicly and privately. Protecting children in these circumstances requires specialisation.”

Ms Saidléar said the RCNI will draw particular attention to familial sexual violence and incest.

“Our RCNI rape crisis data showed that in 62% of child sexual violence against children under 13, it was a family member who committed the crime,” said Ms Saidléar .

“Of the 11,600 cases of guardianship, custody, and access going through our civil courts every year, we can expect a significant proportion to involve the rape and the sexual abuse of children by family members in the absence of a parallel criminal conviction.

“We urgently need [the] Courts Services to make public how many of their cases involve child sexual violence as a matter of justice and public interest.

“The fact is our family courts are currently handling criminal matters of the most sensitive child protection nature in unknown numbers, without criminal authority, without the appropriate tools, and with insufficient specialisation.”

Today’s committee will also hear submissions on family law reform from Conor O’Mahony of University College Cork, and representatives from the Law Society of Ireland and the Children’s Rights Alliance.

Keith Walsh, chairman of the Law Society’s family law committee, will also appear and make a call for a specialist division of courts.

“A specialist division of family law courts and judges would assist greatly in dealing with family law cases more efficiently as it would be likely that the same judges would be available to deal with cases which appear regularly before the courts,” said Mr Walsh.

“A greater degree of consistency could be established.”

The call for a dedicated court echos recommendations by the special rapporteur on child protection, Geoffrey Shannon.

“The message from other jurisdictions is unequivocal and that is that children and family services in the court are best managed by a dedicated and integrated family court structure that is properly resourced to meet the particular needs of people at a vulnerable time in their lives,” Mr Shannon wrote in his 11th report to the Oireachtas last year.

The Law Society will also air concerns about the retention of solicitors in family law practice.

“The Legal Aid Board appears chronically underfunded and it is not economically possible for solicitors to make a living from the private practitioner scheme which has led to a flight of solicitors from the district family court where it operates,” said Mr Walsh.

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