Inside the Family Courts: ‘Decent people with great sadness in their lives’

Estranged and warring couples and their children part of landscape of human cases

Cork Circuit Court: More judges and court staff would, Judge Mary Dorgan believes, enable lists to be run in a way that is most helpful to litigants. Photograph: Daragh Mac Sweeney

Cork Circuit Court: More judges and court staff would, Judge Mary Dorgan believes, enable lists to be run in a way that is most helpful to litigants. Photograph: Daragh Mac Sweeney

 

A tearful homeless mother of two appeals to her ex-partner to increase his access to their children in order to give her some respite. Each sits on opposite sides of the District Court family court in Cork city.

When the man’s solicitor says he is on medication for depression and can’t cope with the children in his home more than every second weekend, the woman becomes distressed.

Her voice shaking, she tells Judge Mary Dorgan: “He’s only on meds two months, I’m on them a lot longer, I’ve suffered from depression for years.” She had been in hospital and is now in a homeless hostel with the children, the woman adds.

Both parents “seem to be decent people with great sadness in their lives”, the judge says.

A temporary arrangement is eventually agreed providing for the man to take on some increased access to the children. The judge also advises the woman how she can access additional supports.

It’s a long and often difficult Thursday in December in the family court in Anglesea Street courthouse. Judge Dorgan, who handles all family law for Cork city and its environs, deals with dozens of cases from 10.30am until just after 7pm.

The judge makes a three-year barring order against a man whose wife alleged he had raped her 15-20 times and does not understand that “no means no”. He denies rape, but admits he breached an interim barring order under which he was required to leave the woman’s home, where the couple had been living with their two children.

A grandmother gets guardianship of two very young grandchildren with the consent of their parents, who are both drug addicts. Her son is getting treatment “but it will take time” and she regularly brings the children to visit their mother because it’s important they maintain that relationship, she tells the judge.

Both children have lived with her almost since their birth. “It’s a busy house but a happy one,” she says, smiling.

Safety orders

An estranged couple who share two children agree to the making of mutual safety orders against each other for one year. Safety orders permit people to live together but prohibit behaviour that induces fear. The couple are pursuing judicial separation and share the care of their children on the basis of taking turns to stay overnight in the house with them.

A man in his 30s who lives with his mother consents to the court making a two-year safety order against him. His mother claimed he takes drink and drugs and had been verbally abusive to her, coming close to her and shouting in her face. “I’m in fear of him, I’m not able for this any more,” she says.

A Muslim couple agree to a protection order remaining in place. The woman, who is pregnant, says the man’s behaviour changed (for the better) after she got a protection order and she is not pursuing a barring order application. “I just want it to stop here, since the last time, he was okay with me, he did not hurt me.”

The man says he and the woman have known each other about a year and “something changed in her when she got pregnant. I think that is normal for a woman.” He says the woman is “not happy that I drink beer” and he had pushed her when she tried to talk to him about rent.

Judge Dorgan’s list illustrates the myriad daily pressures on District Court judges in dealing with large volumes of family law and domestic violence cases.

Judge Mary Dorgan at Washington Street Courthouse, Cork: “To be able to defuse the tensions that arise, you need time and you need to brainstorm the case to get a result.” Photograph: Michael Mac Sweeney
Judge Mary Dorgan at Washington Street Courthouse, Cork: 'To be able to defuse the tensions that arise, you need time and you need to brainstorm the case to get a result.' Photograph: Michael Mac Sweeney

More judges and court staff would, Judge Dorgan believes, enable lists to be run in a way that is most helpful to litigants. “To be able to defuse the tensions that arise, you need time and you need to brainstorm the case to get a result. If you are under pressure because there are so many other cases coming in, it’s not possible to do that as well as you possibly could be. Some cases are very difficult.”

A strong advocate of a collaborative, solution-focused approach in family and juvenile law, the judge actively encourages lawyers to get their clients focused on a proposal that might be reasonable to put before the judge. She firmly believes that means a better result. “That might sound like the touchy-feely branch of law but it works. Adversarial does not work.”

‘Constant pressure’

Judge Catherine Staines, who sits in Portlaoise District Court, says an average family law case concerning maintenance and access can take an hour and a judge might have 40 cases to deal with in a day. A second judge is sent to her district to help on family law matters.

Judge Staines estimates she has about 1,000 family cases a year but just 20 days in the year to hear them. “There really just isn’t enough time to deal with it. You have this constant pressure that if you don’t hurry up through the cases, somebody else’s case would not be heard.”

Judge Gráinne Malone, whose workload includes the criminal aspect of Dublin domestic violence cases such as breaches of safety, barring and child access orders, said domestic violence hearings, as well as hearings of people in custody, were prioritised during the pandemic with hearings resuming in June 2020.

The domestic violence cases are not necessarily about people being forced to live together during the pandemic, many are about breaches of orders concerning access to children, she says.

A “huge” number of cases are struck out. “Women bringing such applications have been in relationships with the respondents to the orders. It’s not straightforward – they may decide, for whatever reason, they don’t want to proceed.” Some cases involve parents against children, then the parents don’t want their children to have a criminal record, and some seek orders because the young person has a drug or mental health problem.

Domestic violence

In domestic violence applications, some injured parties do not want to be in court at all while others want to have their say, the judge adds.

“It’s very important for them to be given that opportunity.That impacts on the court’s resources timewise, but you also can’t be hurrying people. We’re up against it all the time in terms of the volume of business we have to do. And at the same time, we have to give everybody a hearing. We have to hear very technical matters as well.”

Justice Catherine Staines in Portlaoise Courthouse: “You have this constant pressure that if you don’t hurry up through the cases, somebody else’s case would not be heard.” Photograph: Laura Hutton
Justice Catherine Staines in Portlaoise Courthouse: 'You have this constant pressure that if you don’t hurry up through the cases, somebody else’s case would not be heard.' Photograph: Laura Hutton

Judge Colm Roberts, a “moveable” judge sitting in various District Courts, feels the family law system has resulted in too many people coming before the court on a repeat basis, whereas if people received better support, better legal advice and were given more time, matters could be resolved more comprehensively to prevent difficult situations becoming toxic.

He is concerned that court has become almost the first option in family law when, he believes, it should be the last.

He recalls one man who was before the court over arrears of maintenance payments writing to him to complain he had been badly treated by many judges over many years. When that case was called, Judge Roberts was told it could be struck out because the man had taken his own life.

“All I said to this lady was, ‘I am very sorry to hear that and this whole system has been a total failure for everybody.’ Maybe we have failed in that it is too easy to go into court and maybe the alternative is to resolve these matters. There needs to be more invested.”