Family lawyers united in opposition to cases moving to District Court

Family lawyers united in opposition to cases moving to District Court

Pictured (left–right): Sara Phelan SC, Paul McCarthy SC, Ingrid Miley BL, Keith Walsh SC and Caroline Counihan.

Virtually no family lawyers support government proposals to reallocate most divorce, judicial separation, and co-habitation proceedings to the District Court, a new survey suggests.

The Family Lawyers Association surveyed its 286 solicitor and barrister members ahead of a summit on the Family Courts Bill 2022 in Dublin yesterday, which was co-hosted with The Bar of Ireland.

Of the 241 responses to the survey, 96 per cent said they do not believe the District Court is an appropriate venue for judicial separation, divorce, and cohabitation proceedings, and a similar proportion (95 per cent) indicated that the reallocation would result in negative outcomes for parties and the family unit.

An overwhelming majority of 86 per cent of respondents indicated that the reallocation would have a negative impact on time, specifically the length of bringing proceedings to conclusion, and 79 per cent indicated that insufficient time was the primary existing challenge in family and child related proceedings currently before the District Court.

The Bar of Ireland and the Family Lawyers Association are generally supportive of the proposed reforms set out in the bill, but are concerned that the expansion of the District Court’s jurisdiction will create a “two-tier family justice system”.

Family lawyers united in opposition to cases moving to District Court

Yesterday’s summit featured a panel discussion, moderated by Ingrid Miley BL, with contributions from Sara Phelan SC, chair of Bar Council; Paul McCarthy SC, chair of the Family Lawyers Association; Keith Walsh SC, managing partner of Keith Walsh Solicitors; and Caroline Counihan, legal support manager at Safe Ireland.

Ms Phelan said: “As it currently stands, the Family Courts Bill will create a two-tier system, with those owning land up to €1 million in market value having their cases heard in a brisk manner in the District Court, and those owning land in excess of €1million in market value, having their case heard in the Circuit Court, where appropriate time is available, and appropriate systems are in place to support a just hearing.

“This differentiation is not fair and will lead to the denial of justice for parties who do not own land in excess of €1million, or indeed who do not own land or property at all, when they are going through relationship breakdown at a very stressful and vulnerable time of their lives.

“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.”

Mr McCarthy said: “Parties emerging from marital and relationship breakdown deserve to have their cases heard properly. A court ruling can have a lifelong effect on the parties and their children. This is a process that takes court time, and that is not how the District Court operates.

“All parties going through relationship breakdown deserve the same considered approach, not just the better off.”

Mr Walsh said: “The District Family Court is already under severe pressure. It’s the A&E of the courts system and an influx of divorce and other cases will only increase its workload further and displace existing family law cases causing further delays for all family litigants and impacting on all those who must go before the District Court for domestic violence, maintenance or child related cases.

“The creation of this two-tier system will make things much worse and not better for spouses and parents compelled to bring their cases before the family courts. The likely result will be gridlock delay, frustration and a lack of access to justice for families unfortunate enough to have to navigate this new system.”

Ms Counihan said: “We are very concerned about this proposal. I have no doubt that there would be a human cost, which will be paid by vulnerable women and children. These cases are not suitable for a District Court.

“An influx of such cases at that level would also cause even further delays for women who are already at the District Court for sensitive matters such as custody or barring orders. When you are the victim of domestic violence, you need the justice system to operate as quickly as possible.”

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