New courts and judges as family law system set for major reform

Minister says reforms will result in a more efficient system with families at the centre

Minister for Justice and Equality Helen McEntee was given approval for the drafting of a Family Court Bill. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

Minister for Justice and Equality Helen McEntee was given approval for the drafting of a Family Court Bill. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

 

A new scheme to modernise and reform the family law court system has been approved by Cabinet.

Minister for Justice and Equality Helen McEntee was given approval for the drafting of a Family Court Bill and a general scheme of the proposed Bill has been published on the department’s website.

The new regime will see the establishment of a District Family Court, Circuit Family Court, and Family High Court, as divisions of the existing court structures.

It would also see the establishment of new positions within the judiciary of principal judge of the District Family Court, Circuit Family Court and Family High Court, with these judges being responsible for ensuring the proper and effective management of the family courts.

Judges will be appointed on a full-time basis to these positions in both the District Family Court and the Circuit Family Court for renewable terms of three years. Specialist knowledge and ongoing professional training in family law would be required of those appointed.

The Minister said she is determined her reforms will lead to the development of a more efficient and user-friendly system that puts families at the centre of its activities.

The new system will provide access to specialist supports, encourage the use of alternative dispute resolution and streamline court processes.

The programme for government contains a commitment to enact a Family Court Bill and to provide for court procedures that support a less adversarial resolution of disputes.

The overall aim of the reforms is to change the culture so that the focus of the family justice system becomes meeting the complex needs of people who need help with family justice issues, Ms McEntee said.

“The development of sensible, comprehensive and sensitive family law procedures, particularly for vulnerable families, will be central to the new system.”

The publication of the general scheme is a first step in an ongoing process of improving how people are able to resolve family-based problems that require a legal solution, she said.

Divorce

It is proposed to change the jurisdiction of the courts in judicial separation, divorce and dissolution of civil partnership proceedings, as well as cases taken by cohabitants, to enable jurisdiction to be exercised by the District Family Court and Circuit Family Court.

If straightforward and non-contentious cases which require court orders can be successfully resolved through mediation, the District Family Court could exercise jurisdiction in such cases.

It is intended that the Circuit Family Court would deal with complex or contested family law cases.

The Family High Court will have jurisdiction over adoption, child abduction and special care cases, as well as dealing with cases stated and appeals.

A dedicated Family Law Rules Committee will be established to ensure that the rules are coherent and applied with consistency across all levels of the family courts.

The new regime plans to allow greater access by researchers and court reporters to a wider range of court documents to facilitate research in relation to family law proceedings.

A Family Justice Oversight Group has been established to drive progress on the development of the national family justice service. The group, which is chaired by a senior official of the Department of Justice, will co-ordinate delivery of the various elements of the project. Its membership will include representatives from the judiciary, the Courts Service, the Legal Aid Board, and the Department of Children and Youth Affairs.