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Controversy Surrounds Family Courts Bill Amid Calls for Amendments to Prevent a Two-Tier Justice System

By June 25, 2024 No Comments
Family Law Bill

The Family Courts Bill has sparked significant debate among various organisations within the family justice system in Dublin. The Bill aims to reform the family court structure by creating dedicated Family High, Circuit, and District Courts, each staffed with judges specializing in family law. This is intended to streamline family law proceedings and reduce costs for litigants by encouraging alternative dispute resolution methods, such as mediation.

However, several concerns have been raised about the Bill’s current form. Critics, including the Bar of Ireland and the Family Lawyers Association, argue that reassigning most divorce, judicial separation, and co-habitation cases to the District Court will create a two-tier system. They contend that the District Court lacks the resources and capacity to handle the increased caseload, which could lead to significant delays and potentially unfair outcomes for families.

Additionally, there is apprehension that the District Court’s summary jurisdiction approach may not be suitable for the complex and often sensitive nature of family law cases, which require more considered and detailed judicial oversight. The proposal to automatically assign cases involving land valued up to €1 million to the District Court is particularly contentious, as it is feared that this could lead to inadequate handling of significant financial matters that impact families deeply.

NGOs and legal groups have united in their call for practical amendments to the Bill. They emphasize the need for a more equitable system that does not disadvantage families based on the court handling their case. These groups are advocating for the removal of the proposal to shift contested family law proceedings to the District Court and seek a system that ensures fairness and proper judicial consideration for all cases.

Family court reforms in Dublin have recently come under scrutiny from various organisations. These reforms, designed to improve the family court system, have drawn both praise and criticism for their approach to handling cases, particularly those involving children and domestic abuse.

The government’s efforts include greater use of mediation and improving training for mediators to identify domestic abuse early on. The reforms also emphasize elevating the voice of the child in court proceedings to ensure their best interests are prioritized.

Critics argue that some aspects of the reforms may inadvertently make access to justice more challenging. For example, centralizing court proceedings in designated family centres, rather than local courts, has been said to create logistical hurdles for many families. Additionally, compulsory mediation information sessions have been criticised for potentially causing delays and increasing costs, particularly when one party is uncooperative.

Moreover, a UN expert highlighted that family courts often dismiss histories of domestic violence in custody cases, which can place women and children at risk. The expert called for a more child-sensitive approach that prioritizes the protection and best interests of children over other criteria when establishing custody and visitation rights.

The government, on the other hand, remains committed to the Bill, highlighting the establishment of specialized Family Court divisions and the construction of a purpose-built Family Law Court complex at Hammond Lane as key components of the reform. The debate continues, with all parties expressing a desire to support the government in making effective and meaningful reforms to the family justice system.

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