Law Society of Ireland calls for increased investment and implementation plan to radically reform family courts system

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“…first world legislation and third world infrastructure”

The Law Society of Ireland has welcomed the General Scheme of the Family Court Bill 2020 but stressed that the necessary detail, resources, infrastructure and implementation are now needed to ensure that the family courts system is fit for purpose. Speaking about the Bill, Helen Coughlan, Chair of the Law Society’s Family and Child Law Committee, said that a lack of meaningful progress following decades of promises of family law reform “has left Ireland with first world legislation and third world infrastructure.”

In two recent submissions on the Bill to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice and Family Justice Oversight Group, the Law Society has advocated on the need for significant investment in both infrastructure and personnel to rebuild the family justice system to meet the needs of modern Ireland. Prior to this the Law Society had convened a sub-committee, chaired by family law expert Dr Geoffrey Shannon, to review the Family Court Bill and proposals put forward by the Department of Justice.

Ms Coughlan said, “The Law Society has for many years called for reform of the family law and courts system and we’re pleased that many of our recommendations were adopted in the current Family Court Bill. While significant progress has been made in introducing legislation to reflect the changing reality of contemporary family life, this progress has not been matched with the infrastructure needed to make those plans a reality. This has left Ireland with first world legislation and third world infrastructure.”

Overstretched and under-resourced

“We are deeply concerned about the proposal to expand the jurisdiction of the overstretched District Court and call for urgent investment in the appropriate technology to reduce the volume of cases waiting to be heard. It is unacceptable that children and the most vulnerable in our society will continue to bear the impact of insufficient resources. We all have a constitutional right to access justice but due to growing backlogs, we are failing generations of children in Ireland,” explained Ms Coughlan.

“All good legislation needs adequate resourcing and yet proposals to ascertain the voice of the child and regulations in respect of expert reports, which are financially inaccessible to many, are absent from this Bill. We need to ensure that the voice of the child is heard in cases concerning their interests, safety and welfare.”

Ireland lagging behind European jurisdictions

“The establishment of District and Circuit Family Courts while welcome, need to be properly resourced, both in terms of infrastructure and of personnel. Specialised family or children’s court systems are commonplace across European jurisdictions but Ireland is lagging behind. Meaningful investment is long overdue to ensure families have access to justice in a uniform manner across the State,” she said.

“The proposal to remove the High Court from the family justice system will result in the loss of jurisprudence. We urge a rethink on this action that will detrimentally impact on the practice of Irish family law which would no longer benefit from earlier written judgements.”

“The Family Court Bill has the potential to radically overhaul the Irish family justice system. This legislation must be progressed with the urgency and investment it deserves. Ireland’s children and families deserve nothing less. The Law Society will continue to work alongside and engage with the Department of Justice to help achieve a family justice system that is fit for purpose. Without sufficient resourcing however, we will be dealing with the lingering effects of under-resourcing before and during the pandemic on the family courts system for many years to come,” Ms Coughlan concluded.

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