Minister for Justice Helen McEntee has received government approval to publish the Family Court Bill and the first National Family Justice Strategy, marking a significant step towards reform of the Family Justice System and improving access to justice, as committed to by the Programme for Government and Justice Plan 2022.
These reforms will be supported by the construction of a purpose-built Family Law Court complex at Hammond Lane in Dublin. It will replace the present inadequate and fragmented facilities for family law in central Dublin at Dolphin House, Chancery Street, Phoenix House and in the Four Courts.
The Family Court Bill will create a new dedicated Family Court within the existing court structure.
The Bill also provides for court procedures that support a faster and less adversarial resolution of disputes.
Minister McEntee said, “it is a difficult but common reality for families to find themselves dealing with the breakdown of a relationship or trying to resolve a custody or maintenance issue for a child. These interactions often take place when people are personally at their most vulnerable – and unfortunately, the family justice system today does not always offer a smooth transition through these changes in a family’s life.”
“Long waiting times to access the court, multiple journeys to court buildings as well as overly bureaucratic processes, a lack of available information about the system, and at times high legal costs add to the already heavy burden of stress on families. I am determined to overhaul the operation of the family justice system, to ensure we have a more efficient and user-friendly family court system that puts the family and children at the centre of its work. This is a key commitment in my Justice Plan 2022 and today marks an important milestone in that process.”
The main reforms in the Bill are:
- It will provide for the establishment of a Family Court as divisions within the existing court structures.
- There will be a Family High Court, a Family Circuit Court, and a Family District Court, each dealing with family law matters as appropriate to its jurisdiction.
- Judges will be assigned on a full-time basis to the Family Court divisions. These will be judges who, by reason of their training or experience, are suitable to deal with matters of family law. Ongoing professional training in the area of family law will be required.
- In order to ensure proper and effective management of these Courts, it is proposed that new positions of Principal Judge of the Family High Court, Family Circuit Court and Judge of the Family District Court will be created.
- The aim is that the legislation will enable a greater proportion of non-contentious family law matters to be dealt with at District Court level, thus minimising the costs for litigants.
- Proceedings, in a different building or room from that in which other court sittings are held or on different days or at different times from other court sittings.
- The Bill will allow for joint applications to be made under for judicial separation, divorce, and dissolution of civil partnership. This will support mediation and alternative dispute resolution in such cases.
- The Bill provides for the establishment of a dedicated Family Law Rules Committee, or alternatively, Family Law Sub-Committees of the general Courts Rules Committees, to ensure that the rules of court in relation to family law proceedings are coherent and applied with consistency across all levels of the family courts.
The Bill will provide a set of guiding principles to help ensure that the Family Court system will make the best interests of the child a primary consideration in all family law proceedings, operate in an efficient manner, and encourage active case management by the courts.
The courts, legal practitioners and parties to family law proceedings will be required to have regard to these principles.
The key principles include:
- The best interests of every child involved or likely to be affected by the outcome of family law proceedings shall be a primary consideration in the conduct of the proceedings and the child’s views should be ascertained where practicable and given due weight, having regard to the child’s age and maturity.
- The court should encourage and facilitate as far as possible the resolution of issues in dispute by means of alternative resolution methods, such as mediation – except in cases where this would not be appropriate, such as domestic violence cases.
- The promotion and engagement by the court in active case management practices.
- The conduct of proceedings in a manner which is user-friendly for the parties, identifies the issues in dispute, minimises, as far as possible, conflict between the parties, and is just, expeditious and likely to minimise costs of those proceedings.
Minister McEntee added, “the Family Court Bill will form an intrinsic part of the reform of the family justice system and will provide many of the building blocks essential to these reforms. The Bill will create new dedicated Family Courts as divisions within the existing court structures, with Family Court judges assigned on a full-time basis. The Bill will provide that specialist knowledge, and ongoing professional training in the area of family law will be required to be appointed as a family court judge.”
“The Bill will also provide a set of guiding principles to make the best interests of the child a primary consideration in all family law proceedings, to help ensure that the Family Court system will operate in an efficient and user-friendly manner, and to encourage active case management by the courts. The construction of a purpose-built Family Law Court complex at Hammond Lane is core to achieving the transformation of the family justice system. The complex will be built with the specific needs of family law court users in mind and will provide a modern facility where family law cases can be held in a dignified, secure and non-threatening environment with a range of support services at hand.”
A Family Justice Oversight Group was established to develop the first national strategy for the reform of the family justice system and to support the legislative changes proposed in the planned Family Court Bill.
Through the implementation of the goals and actions in this Strategy, Minister McEntee envisages that:
- It will be easier to access information about the family justice system.
- Services and supports will be easier to find.
- People will have better awareness of the options when seeking to resolve their issues.
- The family court structure will be in place.
- The Hammond Lane Family Courts Complex will be advanced.
- Children and those most vulnerable will be provided with improved supports.
- The family justice system will be more accessible, easier to understand, access and navigate, and more responsive to its users’ legal needs.
- The establishment of the family courts will inform the development of future wrap around reforms to support families to resolve their disputes.
Speaking at the launch, Minister for Social Protection and Rural and Community Development Heather Humphreys said, “these reforms will be of particular importance to those on low incomes. The Strategy emphasises the need to provide more information and supports to people, which includes encouraging the use of less adversarial solutions to help resolve disputes. It also emphasises the importance of those working with children and families across the justice system being trained and supported to engage with them.”
Speaking at the launch, Minister of State for Law Reform James Browne said, “the Family Court Bill and the Family Justice Strategy will together modernise our family justice system. It is very welcome that the strategy and the Bill recognise the importance of putting children at the centre of family justice in matters which affect them, and adequately hearing their voice in the family justice system. These reforms come on the back of significant stakeholder consultation, including with children and young people, which means the reforms will be informed by lived experience – I think this is incredibly important to ensure that our systems are effective and responsive to the needs of users, and crucial to improving access to justice.”