Dáil debates

Wednesday, 7 November 2007

Priority Questions

Family Law Courts.

1:00 pm

Photo of Pat RabbittePat Rabbitte (Dublin South West, Labour)
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Question 42: To ask the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform if his attention has been drawn to the recent report (details supplied) commissioned by the Courts Service, which described the Irish family courts system as shambolic and overcrowded; if he will implement the recommendations made in the report; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [27395/07]

Photo of Brian Lenihan JnrBrian Lenihan Jnr (Minister, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Dublin West, Fianna Fail)
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Last week, I welcomed the publication of the report of the family law reporting pilot project undertaken by Dr. Carol Coulter at the request of the Courts Service. This project has made a major contribution to our knowledge of the operation of family law in the courts. It has shed much needed light on the family law area and has assisted in debunking many of the myths prevalent in this area, particularly in relation to disputes on child custody and access. I was very pleased to hear that the board of the Courts Service has decided to continue the pilot reporting project for a further year. I pay tribute to my predecessor who laid the legislative foundation for this exercise.

Many of the recommendations fall outside the remit of my powers as Minister and I am glad to hear from the Chief Justice that the board of the Courts Service is to establish a special committee to review the report and implement its recommendations. I look forward to seeing the outcome of the committee's proceedings in due course.

I assure the Deputy that I fully appreciate the seriousness of delays in the hearing of family law cases. The recent Courts and Court Officers (Amendment) Act 2007 provided for an additional 14 judges: six judges of the District Court, four ordinary judges of the Circuit Court and four ordinary judges of the High Court. These additional judges were appointed to deal with delays and speed up the judicial process.

Another issue highlighted by the report is the concern about costs in family law cases. This is a matter I have examined since my appointment. Earlier this year, the Department published the report of the legal costs implementation advisory group. It is my intention to commence work on the drafting of a new Bill to reform the manner in which disputed legal costs are assessed with the allied objective of making the market for civil legal services more predictable, more consistent and more transparent to the consumer. The Bill will also provide for significant improvements to be made in the quality and quantity of the information that a solicitor is required to provide to clients and the manner in which it is to be supplied.

Additional information not supplied on the floor of the House.

I have asked my Department to examine the recommendations concerning the expansion of the Civil Legal Aid scheme and to report back to me as soon as possible.

The report acknowledges the dramatic improvement in court buildings and facilities. The antiquated and shabby court facilities that used to confront users of the family courts are becoming a thing of the past. In Dublin, for example, three new family law courts are now available in Phoenix House, Smithfield. I am advised that these courts, which hear 98% of Dublin's judicial separation and divorce cases, are equipped with eight consultation rooms and other facilities for court users. The Family Law District Court in Phoenix House is currently being upgraded to provide for five new and enlarged courtrooms with adjoining judges' chambers and additional consultation rooms.

Throughout the rest of the country, the capital building programme of the Courts Service has prioritised family law facilities. Over 40 major refurbishment projects have been completed since the establishment of the service and family law facilities have been provided at all major venues. Dedicated family law facilities are also being provided at current and future projects throughout the country.

The report also makes a range of recommendations to enhance the role of mediation. I agree that mediation is important in the key area of dispute resolution and I understand that this approach will be addressed in new Circuit Court rules. The Legal Aid Board is also taking action to promote the use of dispute resolution mechanisms in family law cases. This has incorporated the collaborative law approach as well as structured negotiation techniques and has the potential to be of considerable benefit to those who find themselves in difficult family situations.

The report recognises the value of case progression, that is, ensuring that cases are prepared for trial in a manner that is just, expeditious and likely to minimise costs. I understand that a draft set of case progression rules for family law proceedings in the Circuit Court has been presented to the Circuit Court rules committee for consideration.

The report highlights the value of judicial conferences and training. Funds have been made available by my Department to the Judicial Studies Institute, which was established by the Chief Justice for the purposes of judicial training. I will carefully consider any future proposals in this regard.

This is an important report and it provides a valuable benchmark against which we will be able to monitor future improvements in how we conduct, organise and arrange family law business in our courts.

Photo of Pat RabbittePat Rabbitte (Dublin South West, Labour)
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In this report Dr. Coulter says it is remarkable that the system works at all. She talked about it being shambolic and overcrowded, the lack of uniformity, court lists overcrowded, courts meeting late into the night and a number of other defects were identified and recommendations were made in 1996 in the Law Reform Commission report and not acted upon. I wish to ask the Minister a couple of specific questions. With regard to her recommendation that there ought to be a separate family law division of the Circuit Court, what is his disposition in that regard? On the issue of access by the press to the family courts, with certain restrictions as recommended, what is his attitude to that? In regard to the criticisms by the organisation for separated fathers who have the very definite perception that in many cases they do not get a fair hearing and do not get reasonable access to their children and so on, what is the Minister's view of the complaints advanced in recent years by that organisation? When he talks about the cost of access to the family courts, as he did in his reply, does he intend to take any steps in that regard? It is remarkable that divorce by consent can cost a number of thousands of euro outside of Dublin but many times that in Dublin or in Cork. Why is it more expensive to get divorced in the jurisdiction inside Chapelizod and relatively less expensive outside it?

Photo of Brian Lenihan JnrBrian Lenihan Jnr (Minister, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Dublin West, Fianna Fail)
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In regard to the question of family law division the current practical arrangement in the Dublin Circuit Court is that for all practical purposes there is a family law list administered by a number of judges. The Circuit Courts outside Dublin do not have a similar dedicated list which is heard by a group of judges or by a judge sitting alone exclusively dedicating himself or herself to family law cases. That is an issue I propose to address. The more wide-ranging recommendation which was made by the Law Reform Commission for a separate family law division would involve the appointment of judges exclusively to family law cases. I am not satisfied that it would be possible to recruit a corp of judges to do this work exclusively. That said, I am open to change in the sense that I believe judges within the Circuit Court system and within the other courts that had jurisdiction in these matters should be assigned on a permanent basis for a period of years to deal with these cases on a dedicated basis. That is something that was advanced in the report which I have asked my Department to examine.

On the question of press reporting, one of the reasons this area has not come to light for some years is that there is inaccurate reporting and there is no publicity. The constitutional presumption is that justice should be administered in public. That is an important presumption because it allows full and fair criticism to take place of court decisions. My predecessor and the Oireachtas enacted the necessary legislation in 2004 that allowed this research project take place which has thrown light on the operation of the courts system. I very much welcome that. Further recommendations are made in the report about extending publicity in these matters and they are under examination in my Department.

Photo of Pat RabbittePat Rabbitte (Dublin South West, Labour)
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What about the unmarried fathers?

Photo of Brian Lenihan JnrBrian Lenihan Jnr (Minister, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Dublin West, Fianna Fail)
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On that issue, it is not appropriate for me to comment on individual decisions or even the trend of decisions in the courts but I believe the publicity thrown on these matters by this report will be helpful in addressing the concerns raised. In regard to costs I am happy to say that mediation is important in these matters.