Family court reforms risk creating ‘two-tier family justice system’

Family court reforms risk creating 'two-tier family justice system'

Sara Phelan SC

Proposals to transfer judicial separations, divorce and co-habitation proceedings to the District Court risk creating a “two-tier family justice system”, senior lawyers have warned.

The Bar of Ireland, backed by the Family Lawyers’ Association (FLA), which represents over 500 barristers and solicitors, has urged the government in a new submission to rethink this element of the Family Courts Bill 2022, which it says it otherwise strongly supports.

Under the bill, proceedings where land — which would normally include a family home — up to €1 million in market value is involved will be automatically assigned to the District Court, regardless of the complexity of their circumstances. Those involving land worth more than €1 million will remain at the Circuit Court.

Bar Council chair Sara Phelan SC said: “The rationale for this proposed reassignment is not clear. The Bar of Ireland is not aware of any concerns expressed by those involved in the family justice system about the allocation of jurisdiction between courts. This seems to be a solution in search of a problem.

“Of primary concern to us is that the approach that is currently proposed in the bill will result in the creation of a two-tier family justice system. Not only is it not fair, but it will also only add to what is an already over-burdened District Court, often described as the A&E of the courts system.”

She added: “We are calling on government to revisit this aspect of the bill urgently, and to afford the same fairness to all families and those in the midst of relationship breakdown.”

FLA chairperson Paul McCarthy SC said: “The proposal to transfer this aspect of family law to the District Court will ultimately undermine the wider intention of the Bill, which we broadly support. The District Court is simply not equipped, nor is it suited, to the processing of these very complex types of proceedings.

“For many litigants, the occasion of a judicial separation or divorce will be an enormous part of their life story. As such they will carry a heightened degree of apprehension and vulnerability into the process. Having their matters considered and ruled upon in a summary and rushed manner in a busy local court will do nothing to lessen those apprehensions and vulnerabilities.

“The solution is to appoint more judges and to allocate more targeted resources to the Circuit Court, while allowing the District Court to continue build on its experience with childcare and other family proceedings.”

FLA vice-chair and solicitor Brendan Dillion added: “Our members throughout the State are keenly aware as to how overstretched the District Courts are with existing workload. The physical environment alone is not conducive to sensitive and stressful family matters, whether they be contested or uncontested.

“The FLA is concerned that if judicial separations/divorces are listed for hearing in the District Court, it may result in less resources and time being made available for urgent domestic violence applications which are brought in the District Court on a daily basis. This is a frightening prospect for the victims concerned.

“The FLA supports the vision of a responsive and efficient family courts system, dedicated to supporting citizens, their families and wider community. But this aspect of reform will negate that.

“We are calling on all Oireachtas members and public representatives to meet with us, to understand the detail of this issue, and to refocus this particular provision towards a better support and resourced Circuit Court system.”

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