Ireland is one of the only developed countries that does not have a specialist court dealing with family matters, including authorising the State to remove children from their families. This is an awesome responsibility, impinging on fundamental constitutional rights, yet in this State such applications are often made in overcrowded District Courts, listed alongside minor crime, routine District Court matters and other family law cases. This contravenes the Child Care Act, which requires that child care applications are heard on a different day or in a different place from other matters, but such is the pressure on the courts that they cannot comply with this requirement.
Last week the Child Care Law Reporting Project issued a report based on a survey of the District Court which showed that outside of the major population centres child care applications can be part of lists containing more than 100 other cases, in courts with limited waiting areas and sometimes poor physical conditions.
The law requires that all family law proceedings are heard in camera, to protect the privacy of those involved in sensitive and often distressing cases. Yet, according to the report, in many of the courts people had little option but to discuss their cases with their lawyers in public areas.
A child care case might not be heard until the afternoon, but the families concerned, the social worker witnesses attending on behalf of the Child and Family Agency (CFA) and all the lawyers involved have to be present all day as they do not know when their case will be called. Not only is this inevitably highly stressful for the families concerned, it is clearly not a good use of scarce agency resources.
It is 24 years since the Law Reform Commission proposed the establishment of a Family Court division within our court system, and the proposal has been repeated since by judges, lawyers and all those at the coalface of the family law system.
The establishment of a Family Court was part of the programme for government of the last government and the present Minister for Justice has repeatedly told the Dáil that his department is working on a Family Court Bill, with the intention of establishing a dedicated Family Court within the existing court structures.
However, although this was announced a year ago, there is no sign of it reaching the pre-legislative scrutiny stage.
For the past month the Oireachtas Committee on Justice and Equality has been discussing reform of family law. There was a broad consensus among both those making presentations and members of the committee on the need for a family division within our courts system.
This now deserves to be pushed up the Government’s legislative priorities.