The chair of the Law Society’s Family and Child Law Committee, Helen Coughlan, has said that Ireland has been left with “third world infrastructure” in the family courts and that urgent investment is needed to prevent children and vulnerable people from paying the price. The chair of the Child Law Committee went on to say:
“It is unacceptable that children and the most vulnerable in our society will continue to bear the impact of insufficient resources. We all have a constitutional right to access justice but due to growing backlogs, we are failing generations of children in Ireland.”
An indication of just how poorly the Family Courts system has been served by a number of recent governments can be seen in the fact that the consistent under-resourcing of the family law system was first raised in a 1994 Law Reform Commission Consultation Paper. Twenty-seven years later and the situation for families and children has remained essentially the same.
The current Programme for Government does contain a commitment to enact legislation that will create a new dedicated Family Court within the existing court structure and provide for court procedures that support “a less adversarial resolution of disputes.” The need for such an approach was also recognised in a 2019 Report by the Oireachtas Committee on Justice and Equality, which found that the common law adversarial system is highly unsuitable for family law cases, as parents are focused on ‘winning’, and their disputes can be psychologically damaging for both them and their children. The 2019 Report also found that although half of all legal aid applications relate to family law matters, prolonged delays are encountered when one or both parties involved apply for civil legal aid.
Examples of delays provided to the Committee highlighted the ten months (approximately 42 weeks) delay for a first civil legal aid consultation in Blanchardstown and Finglas law centres; 33 weeks in Cork law centre; and 33 weeks in Tralee. In her criticism today, Ms Coughlan also made the separate point that “while legislation needs adequate resourcing,” proposals to ascertain the voice of the child and regulations in respect of expert reports are “financially inaccessible to many”, and are absent from the governments proposed legislation. The cost of such expert reports can range from €3000-€4000.
Other issues identified by the Law Society and the Oireachtas Committee relate to the fact in Ireland, “family law conflict is often exacerbated by unmarried fathers not having automatic guardianship rights in respect of their children, even if their name is registered on the birth certificate.”
Only mothers have automatic rights to guardianship in these cases. This in turn “often results in separating parents taking the adversarial route through court, leading to tension and conflict between parties, with the child caught in the maelstrom.” The problems and challenges relating to all of these issues are being compounded by the “third world” family court infrastructure that successive governments have dismally failed to tackle, to the detriment of all concerned, especially the child.