Family law system to be overhauled with children’s interests ‘paramount’

Specialist judges to preside over dedicated division with Family High Court and other courts in new building

High-conflict family law disputes will be heard faster, more professionally and with children’s interests “paramount” under legislation announced by Minister for Justice Helen McEntee.

Announcing the long-awaited Family Court Bill on Wednesday she said the current system did “not always support” families well, with high-stakes cases happening in buildings that were “not adequate”.

As families with children in relationship breakdowns were currently forced to navigate a system seen by many as too fragmented, opaque and adversarial, with long delays and inadequate facilities, she was “determined to overhaul [its] operation” to ensure it “puts the family and children at the centre of its work”.

Alongside the bill she published the first national family justice strategy, to run to 2025. Both come almost 30 years after the Law Reform Commission called for sweeping changes to the operation of the family justice system, and follow decades of calls for reform by senior members of the judiciary.


The Bill will establish a dedicated family court division within the courts service, with a Family High Court, Family Circuit Court and Family District Court, overseen by specialist judges working full-time in family law. The centrepiece of the family courts will be a dedicated family courts complex at Hammond Lane in Dublin, to be open by 2026, replacing Dolphin House, Phoenix House and the four courts.

The family justice strategy, which does not include costings, commits to nine central goals, with ‘supporting children’ to be the “single most important focus for the family justice system”. Other goals include better alternative dispute resolution, legislative reform and ‘people development’ – ie specialised training for those working in the family courts.

By the end of 2025 it promises experts providing reports, including on the best interests of children, to courts will be properly trained, regulated and overseen; family-law judges will be trained to communicate with children and to recognise the dynamics of domestic abuse and coercive control, and, child-friendly information will be provided to all children in the system. The location for a new central office for a national guardian ad litem service will be identified and opened.

Beyond Hammond Lane, family law cases will be held on dedicated family-law days, in dedicated court rooms – as distinct from the current situation where judges outside Dublin may be hearing criminal and other civil matters on the same day in the same courtroom as they hear family law cases.

This, it hopes, will help address wide disparities in waiting times and lengths of cases. “In September 2021, a family in Naas could wait up to 32 weeks for Naas District Court to hear their family law maintenance application while a family in Bray could wait 6 weeks,” says the strategy. “In Ballina, a domestic violence application was listed for full hearing with interim orders in place in 4 weeks while a similar application took 23 weeks in Tullamore.”

Public consultations were conducted by the Family Justice Oversight Group, which drew up the strategy. They found over half of those who had been in the family-courts did not have the information they needed to resolve issues outside court, while stakeholders said even professionals in the system didn’t know what services were available to support to families in crisis.

A severe lack of data about what is happening in the family-justice system will be addressed, and consideration given to relaxing the in camera rule “permit research and reporting on cases and recommend any legislative changes”.

The child-centred focus of the strategy was widely welcomed, though several organisations said adequate resourcing of the strategy would be vital to delivery. “Funding will need to be provided including financial support for some families, to ensure children’s voices are heard,” said One Family.

Success, says the strategy, will mean: “The family justice system will be more accessible, easier to understand, access and navigate, and more responsive to its users’ legal needs”.

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland is Social Affairs Correspondent of The Irish Times