The week before Christmas is dreaded by many family court lawyers and judges. For some parents, mostly fathers, it is their last chance to be granted access to their children for at least some of the festive period.
“It’s always been the case that coming up to Christmas there is a tension and anxiety because the parent who doesn’t have custody wants access,” says family law barrister Seán Ó hUallacháin SC. “It’s such an emotive time of year. You don’t find such emotion over Easter or summer holidays.
“Some of that emotion can be legitimate, but a lot of the time it can be badness on people’s parts, using children as bargaining chips to get at the other party.”
He says by its nature family law is always fraught with emotion, but in recent years cases have been running a lot smoother. “That’s because the system has grown up. The courts and the judges don’t put up with people playing football with kids.”
But there is still a proportion – he estimates between 10 per cent and 15 per cent of cases – where there is “huge aggression and volatility”.
The incident which began at around 11.30am on Thursday in the family court complex in Smithfield, Dublin, appears to stem from such a case. It appears the man, who told the court he had a bomb and gun, was aggrieved with his ex-wife and her solicitor over access to his children.
Most of the violence which has taken place in courtrooms in recent years has occurred in the family courts.
It was around Christmas in 2015 when a man punched Judge Miriam Walsh in the Dolphin House family court complex in Temple Bar. He attacked the judge after she granted his elderly parents a safety order against him.
In June of last year a man before the same courts held a piece of jagged Perspex to the throat of his barrister and threatened to kill her, before assaulting three prison officers who tried to intervene. The accused, a convicted murderer, was before the court in relation to a family law matter.
After both of those incidents there were immediate calls for increased security at family law facilities; calls which have gone largely unheeded.
Anyone who wishes to enter the Criminal Courts of Justice or the Four Courts must pass through an airport-style security scanner. Anything which could be used as a weapon is confiscated by security guards. However, there are no such measures in Dublin's two family court facilities, Phoenix House and Dolphin House.
It was only this week a permanent Garda presence was assigned to Phoenix House. There is a Garda presence in Dolphin House, which handles most domestic violence cases, but as Ó hUallacháin points out, they are located on the ground floor of a three-storey building. “They have to cover four or five courts. It’s a very low-key presence.”
Ó hUallacháin was chairman of the Family Lawyers Association of Ireland last year when the barrister was taken hostage in Dolphin House.
“We wrote letters to the Courts Service, to the Prison Service, to the Chief Justice expressing our concerns, but we just got nice polite replies back. Nothing much really changed.”
The main barrier to extra security seems to be financing. It costs roughly €100,000 to run a security scanner, so for smaller courthouses it’s judged not to be worth it.
The Courts Service has also raised the issue in the past with the Garda and Department of Justice. “An expression of concern about security in court sittings had been voiced previously by both the judiciary and the Courts Service,” a spokesman said.
The fact that Thursday’s incident occurred not in a lowly District Court such as Dolphin House but in a Circuit Court beside the Courts Service headquarters will “focus minds”, another family lawyer said.
“Dolphin House is almost seen as a remote outpost so previous criticism went in one ear and out the other. I suspect something will actually happen this time around.”
As of Thursday night that seemed to be the case. Senior gardaí met the Courts Service chief executive to “immediately review” future security arrangements for the family courts, a senior source said.
In the long term the priority is to open the planned Hammond Lane complex, a €40 million project which will centralise all the family courts under one roof on a one acre site in Smithfield.
This complex would have airport-style security and a significant Garda presence. The problem is it has yet to receive funding approval from the Government despite pressure from the judiciary.
“Like the children’s hospital that price tag is obviously going to go up again,” said Ó hUallacháin. “It’s hard to see it being built for another five to seven years. And that might be optimistic if there’s a bad fallout from Brexit.”