Bill aims to reform child and family courts system

Child and family justice system not child, family or disability friendly, says commission

The Bill will establish a District Family Court, a Circuit Family Court and a Family High Court as divisions within existing court structures. Photograph: Alan Betson

The Bill will establish a District Family Court, a Circuit Family Court and a Family High Court as divisions within existing court structures. Photograph: Alan Betson

 

The child and family law courts are not child, family, or disability friendly, the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission has said in a submission to the Oireachtas Justice Committee.

The submission makes a number of recommendations in relation to the Family Court Bill 2020, which is to be considered by the committee.

The Bill will establish a District Family Court, a Circuit Family Court and a Family High Court as divisions within existing court structures.

The Government has said the Bill aims to “change the culture so that the focus of the family justice system meets the complex needs of people who need help with family justice issues”.

According to the commission, the current system is “marked by chronic delays in court proceedings, repeat adjournments, crowded lists, excessive caseloads, delays in conducting assessments of children and adults, inconsistent approaches to hearing views of the child, adversarial approaches to proceedings, inconsistency in decisions, and a lack of specialist training for judges and legal practitioners”.

Consultation

Among the recommendations it makes are that the proposed law should clarify the factors and circumstances which a court should have regard to in determining the bests interests of a child.

The Bill envisages that the Courts Service may, after consultation with the heads of the court divisions, divide the circuits of the District and Circuit Family Courts in to “convenient geographic areas”.

The commission recommends that the Courts Service be required to consult with relevant stakeholders, “including court users from marginalised groups, namely lone parents, people with disabilities and people from diverse ethnic and linguistic backgrounds”, when deciding on any “convenient geographic areas” for the purposes of family law proceedings.

This would “ensure that the division of geographical locations is informed by human rights and equality principles”, according to the submission.

The proposed reforms include the establishment of a family law rules committee, to ensure consistency across the system.

The commission, in its submission, recommends that consideration be given to expanding the membership of the committee to include court users, “including marginalised groups such as people with disabilities; children’s rights advocates; and people from different ethnic backgrounds, including members of the Traveller community”, or that the law require the committee to consult with such groups.

Disproportionately represented

It says that lone-parent families, persons with disabilities, people with psychosocial disabilities, minority ethnic groups, people in the international protection system, Travellers and Roma are disproportionately represented in child and family care proceedings.

It recommends that the protections for people from such groups should be strengthened in the draft legislation.

It also recommends that Family High Court judges be required to undergo continual training or education in family and child care law.

The proposed law, the commission said, should include a non-exhaustive list of areas where judges are required to have specialised knowledge and training.

This would include such areas as “the fundamental rights of the individual; rights of the child, including listening to children and reading their concerns and wishes in a child appropriate manner; non-discrimination; accessibility; and alternative dispute resolution mechanisms.”