Family law cases ‘put on backburner’, TD claims

Mary Mitchell O’Connor questions why family court is still without basic facilities

Fine Gael TD Mary Mitchell O’Connor supported a statement by Minister for Justice Alan Shatter today on the need for specialist judges. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons/The Irish Times

Fine Gael TD Mary Mitchell O’Connor supported a statement by Minister for Justice Alan Shatter today on the need for specialist judges. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons/The Irish Times


Family law cases are being put on the “backburner” compared to the facilities for criminal court cases, the Dáil has heard.

Fine Gael TD Mary Mitchell O’Connor highlighted the situation at Dolphin House, one of the State’s busiest and “most heavily burdened family courts”.

Ms Mitchell described it as an “archaic building without the most basic facilities. In comparison, the criminal courts are housed in state-of-the-art buildings, the facilities in which far outshine those available in the family courts”.

The Dun Laoghaire TD was speaking during a debate on the Criminal and Civil Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, which reforms a number of areas including allowing journalists attend family law cases under certain circumstances, increasing the number of Supreme Court judges by two and increasing award limits in civil proceedings in the District and Circuit Courts.

Describing conditions in Dolphin House, she said consultation rooms were limited and “hallways and doorways become places for discussion”. She said sensitive decisions “that impact on individuals and their children’s lives are made in corners and staircases”.

“Far too often, women who make applications to the family court have to wait weeks or months for legal representation. Why are families, often in dire need of urgent legal service, being put on the backburner?”

She said many judges were “masters of the law but few are specialists in any area. Judges are rarely assigned to one court.” She supported a statement by Minister for Justice Alan Shatter on the need for specialist judges. “This should have been implemented years ago,” she said.

Ms Mitchell O’Connor highlighted the experience of one woman in the family law court whose case took nine years to complete. She said it was one of many “impacted on by the failures of the system”.

The woman initially went through the collaborative route with her ex-husband after separating in 2003, and the process was finalised after nine years.

“Unfortunately, their divorce agreement was never enforced. In 2008, five years after her initial approach to the courts, her maintenance payments stopped and one year later her children’s payments stopped.

“She went to the High Court to seek that the divorce order be upheld. Her husband hired a top lawyer, while she was represented by the legal aid service.”

Ms Mitchell O’Connor said the woman had to sell possessions to provide the basic necessities for her children. “The legal system she encountered was one of constant adjournments, brief hearings and increased acrimony. It followed her children through their education.”

She said the outdated the family law courts system meant that “a mother with three children who need her constant attention had to put her focus, money and time into a crumbling court system that appeared to have little or no interest in her well-being”.

Minister for Justice Alan Shatter said he could not comment on individual cases but he believed there should be a separate integrated family court system. “There is a need to ensure that those we appoint to such a court have the inside expertise common sense to make decision in such a court.”

The Minister expressed his regret that because of lack of resources that he could not provide the sort of welfare assessment service he believed the courts should have in dealing with custody disputes and access issues to help judges decide.

“There is change taking place and a number of improvements in family law have taken place including improved facilities in refurbished venues” in some places.

He said Dolphin House which had a significant role in dealing with barring and safety orders. He pointed out that it was completely refurbished in 2007.

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