Referendum to establish family court to be held next year
Specialist judges would preside over courts
Minister for Justice Alan Shatter said he felt strongly it was necessary to have specialist judges, expert in family law, presiding over family courts. Photograph: The Irish Times
A referendum to establish a new family court will be held next year, Minister for Justice Alan Shatter has said.
Speaking at a consultative seminar on family law courts in the Law Society this morning, Mr Shatter said the Government had originally intended holding a referendum on a Family Court at the same time as the referendum to establish a Court of Appeal this autumn, but he was anxious to ensure a “broad consultative process”.
“The intention now is that the referendum to establish a new family court will be held in the course of 2014,” he said.
The proposed new family court would comprise two tiers, with the upper of unlimited jurisdiction and both tiers staffed by specialist judges.
The lower court would deal with family law and child care matters currently being dealt with by the District Court, as well as possibly cases where there is consent and no dispute exists. The upper court would deal with cases currently seen at Circuit Court and High Court level.
Mr Shatter said he felt strongly that it was necessary to have specialist judges, expert in family law, presiding over family courts.
“I realise this for some is a controversial proposal but I feel strongly that it is a necessary measure,” he said.
There were few who had experience of family law that would argue every party in a case “is always dealt with in a satisfactory and sensitive manner by all members of the judiciary”.
“Just because a person has been a solicitor or a member of the Bar in practice for the minimum 10 years required to be appointed a judge, it does not mean that he or she has necessarily amassed the insight, qualities and expertise necessary to deal with all cases,” he said.
A judge’s “temperament and common sense” were as crucial as “their fund of legal knowledge”, he said.
The Minister also suggested that formal multi-disciplinary training be available in colleges on family law.
He said it was envisaged that appeals from the higher family court would be heard before the proposed new court of appeal with the possibility of cases of extreme urgency going directly to the Supreme Court. Ideally, the family law courts would be in entirely separate venues with related welfare, assessment and mediation facilities, he said, but “in the current climate it may take some years to achieve”.
The Minister highlighted the Law Reform Commission report in 1996 which described family courts as “buckling under the pressure of business” and judges in them as “not always” having the necessary experience or aptitude.
“Despite no doubt good intentions and some measures being introduced, the situation has not greatly improved,” he said.
The report also described proposals for a separate family law court as “radical and over-ambitious”. But, Mr Shatter said, “it is incumbent on us to be ambitious”.
“Families in crisis, children whose welfare and development are a matter of controversy and children in need of care and protection deserve no less.”