Thursday, 22 September 2022
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
Thank you very much, a Cheann Comhairle, for putting me in the picture in the context of this matter. I am taking it on behalf of both the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, and the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman. I will keep to the script on this so that we can continue with the story.
I thank Deputy Durkan for raising this important matter here today and for giving me the opportunity to provide clarity on some issues. Management of the courts, operational matters and logistical functions are the responsibility of the Judiciary and the Courts Service, which are independent in exercising their functions under the Courts Service Act 1998 and given the separation of powers in the Constitution. As such, I am unable to comment on the specific matters raised by the Deputy.
Section 47 of the Family Law Act 1995 provides that the Circuit Court or High Court may order a report in writing on any question affecting the welfare of a party to family law proceedings or any other person to whom they relate. Section 3 of the Guardianship of Infants Act 1964 provides that the best interests of the child shall be the paramount consideration for the court in any proceedings where guardianship, custody or upbringing of, or access to, a child is in question. Section 32(1) of the 1964 Act provides that in such proceedings, the court may do either or both of the following: give directions for the purpose of procuring a written report from an expert on any question affecting the welfare of the child; or appoint an expert to determine and convey the child's views. Assessors and experts in family law proceedings are formally appointed by the court, and answer to the presiding judge in a specific case.
The Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, is determined to overhaul the operation of the family justice system, to ensure that we have a more efficient and user-friendly family court system that puts the family at the centre of its work. This is a key commitment in the Minister's Justice Plan 2022. The programme for Government contains a commitment to enact a family court Bill to create a new dedicated family court within the existing courts structure and provide for court procedures that support a faster and less adversarial resolution of disputes. The purpose of the legislation is the establishment of a dedicated family court to improve levels of judicial expertise and training in family law matters and to streamline family law proceedings, thereby making them more user-friendly and less costly.
The general scheme of the family court Bill has been referred to the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel and drafting is progressing with a view to publication of the Bill as soon as possible in this Dáil session. The Minister also established a family justice oversight group 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. The focus of the group is to drive and co-ordinate the modernisation of the family justice system to make it more user-friendly, streamlined, supportive and, where possible, less adversarial. The terms of reference of the group include developing a high-level vision and medium and long-term objectives for the development of an effective national family justice system. This will be most obvious in the development of the first family justice strategy and its subsequent implementation. The strategy is currently being finalised.
As part of its work to develop the strategy, the group engaged in a consultation process where relevant stakeholders, the public, children and young people who engage with the family justice system gave their views on how a modernised family justice system should look. A number of common issues were raised and are being considered for inclusion in the emergent family justice strategy, including: a greater focus on children; the availability of and access to support services; the potential use of less adversarial approaches to the resolution of disputes; and, where possible, appropriate training and information dissemination and awareness raising. One of the areas being considered by the group is additional training for those working within the family justice system that would benefit all those who engage with the system. The family court 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.