Long waits at family courts lead to high emotions

‘It’s not a game,’ judge tells Nenagh couple in dispute over daughter

Sat, Jul 5, 2014, 01:04

People filled the seating areas, foyer and outside space at Bray District Court on Wednesday this week, all waiting for their cases.

The difference from other areas of law, is that those involved in family and childcare must wait outside court until their names are called.

In Dublin, Dolphin House deals with family law every day, but elsewhere in the country, District Courts have designated family law days each month.

In all, 75 cases were to be heard on Wednesday in Bray; in Drogheda on Tuesday there were 45 and although the list was shorter in Nenagh on Thursday, the registrar there was predicting a long day at the court’s final family session of the term later on this month.

In each court, all of the cases were listed for first thing in the morning and all of those involved arrived at the same time. They packed the courtrooms for call over, when the case names were read out one by one to check that the parties were present, and then they filtered out into the corridors and seated areas to wait for their turn.

Every case heard was an important one; important for the men and women involved and very important for the children often at their centre. Decisions were made that will seriously affect their young lives.

Bickering and shouting

On Thursday, at Nenagh District Family Court, Judge Elizabeth McGrath sought a second opinion in the case of a six-year-old in foster care: a psychiatrist had recommended behavioural control drugs for probable Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

The Child and Family Agency social worker said the child couldn’t be brought anywhere and that the doctor was very careful about prescribing medication.

The judge said she was concerned about her age. She said she wanted to be satisfied that all other options were considered. “Medication is a nuclear option,” she said.

In another case, the same judge reprimanded the parents of another young child.

The case involved maintenance arrears on a payment of €130 a week. The father had unilaterally decided to reduce it and the mother had responded by reducing his access to his daughter.

The mother also wanted the court to dispense with the need for the father to sign a passport application.

Texts were read out in court: “€80 a week Monday and Friday,” one read. These were the father’s new terms.

The mother responded with “you’re a disgusting pig” and warned him that the courts were closing shortly until September and she could be gone.

“You won’t even know where your child is living,” she texted.

The judge refused to dispense with the need for the father to sign for a passport pending a full hearing of the case. She ordered him to pay the arrears he owed and pointed out that his daughter was “not an object”.

She told the couple they were dealing with a young child who didn’t deserve to be caught up in their difficulties.

“Please just sit back and think of this in terms of her; it’s not a game,” she said.

By mid-afternoon in Drogheda, when a couple, both unrepresented, began bickering and then shouting over each other in a row over €40, Judge Flann Brennan put his head in his hands in exasperation. He probably had another dozen cases to be dealt with.

One solicitor confided that the court sometimes sits until after 10pm to clear the list.

In general, judges deal with the short cases first; minor matters such as solicitors’ applications for short service, adjournments or those with consent.

Couples involved in longer cases spend more time waiting. This can sometimes lead to settlements reached outside the courts and when the cases are finally called they require only the judge’s seal of approval. But when no settlement is reached, particularly when parties are unrepresented, it can lead to a build up of frustration.

Men and women spend the day dwelling on the perceived wrongs done to them and by the time they make it to the courtroom they are often tired, usually emotional and sometimes fit to burst.

And the judge hearing the case must be referee and arbiter and must deal with the parties patiently and in the same measured way that he or she dealt with the cases heard early in the morning when everyone was fresh.

Emotional pressure

Mediation is encouraged by many organisations involved in family law and it works for many couples. But there will always be those for whom only a decision made by a judge will be enough to settle their dispute.

Would it not be possible to make the whole experience a little more civilised for them by setting aside more time for family law and by staggering cases throughout the day? This way men and women already under emotional pressure would not be required to wait for hours, brooding on their circumstances.