Tuesday, 18 June 1996
Dáil Éireann Debate
Mr. O'Dea: The widespread welcome accorded the Supreme Court judgment in the Hanafin case — which gives the green light to the introduction of divorce legislation — is premature. The introduction of divorce legislation would generate an enormous amount of extra family law business which will be simply loaded onto a system which has already effectively broken down. The Law Reform Commission, an organisation not given to hyperbole, recently described Ireland's family courts system as being “in crisis” and “a sad parody” of that which might be expected in a state whose Constitution places such emphasis on the protection of family life.
Family law in Ireland has changed more in the last decade than it did in the previous century. New business triggered by the Judicial Separation Act, 1989, was simply grafted onto the existing system without any commensurate increase in funding. In 1988 there were 68 applications before the courts for the remedy now known as judicial separation. In 1994 the figure was 2,806, a 40fold increase. In the case of a family law client, whether a battered wife or deserted husband, who applies to the Dublin District Court for a judicial separation decree today, that case will not be heard until, at the earliest, January 1998. The position outside Dublin is invariably worse and in some venues, much worse.
At present people who can no longer live together and whose conflict is often damaging to their children will have to endure several years more under the one roof until the court hears their case. This is the bleak reality of the present system. One can hardly begin to imagine what the position will be when divorce legislation comes into effect.  The present intolerable delays discourage parties from reaching amicable solutions by agreement. Because they will be aware of the long delay for a court hearing, couples will frequently intiate proceedings without exhausting all other possibilities. Once proceedings are initiated, negotiations become progressively more difficult. Parties often find themselves under doctor's care during the extended waiting period for a court hearing. The children of a couple going through this process may suffer long-term trauma and incalculable damage. They are the silent victims. Their lives are put on hold, often for several years, and they are frequently used as pawns by one parent against the other in disagreements which occur during the waiting period.
Women in particular suffer cruelly during their extended wait for justice. Those not living in physical fear often suffer great mental cruelty and distress. Some flee to the relative sanctuary of women's refuges. Many have inadequate resources and they and their children are obliged to live from hand to mouth, often for several years. When the case eventually goes to court, because of pressure of business the judge is often forced to make his or her decision after a hearing that is all too brief and huried. Such judges often hand down decisions which further exacerbate family conflict.
The physical condition of many courthouses outside Dublin is neither adequate nor appropriate for family law hearings. Couples in conflict are often forced to consult their lawyers in the open air in all types of weather, or, alternatively in crowded hallways a few feet from where the other party is consulting his or her lawyer about the very same business. The State has failed to provide the resources, structures and personnel to make the present legislation work. It is obvious that, before we introduce more law, giving rise to yet  more business, we must provide the wherewithal to make the present system work properly and increase resources accordingly. The appointment of extra judges, as promised by the Government, will be grossly inadequate. Radical surgery is necessary. The Law Reform Commission, in its recent report on family courts, indicated clearly what needs to be done. The Government has accepted that report. If, however, it continues to refuse to implement its recommendations it will be condemning even more of our citizens to continue to endure a position which is not only patently unconstitutional but fundamentally unchristian.
Mr. Allen: I apologise for the absence of the Minister for Justice, Deputy Owen. The hearing of family law cases in our courts is a matter of great concern to the Minister who is committed to ensuring that these cases are dealt with in the most effective and efficient way possible. Social changes in recent years and developments in the family law area have led to a major increase in the number of persons coming before the courts on family law business and this has placed a severe strain on the resources of the courts. There are prolems in some courts with regard to delays in the sharing of family law business and with the accommodation available for persons having recourse to the courts on such business. Delay in the hearing of family law cases is a serious matter having regard to both the personal and complex nature of such cases and to the fact that the decisions in them have lifelong repercussions on all members of the families concerned.
TheProgramme for a Partnership Government — A Government of Renewal— gives a commitment to complete the steps necessary to ensure that family courts are strengthened. The Law Reform Commission in its report on family courts examined the best type of judicial courts structure for dealing with  family law and have recommended “a combination of structural and legal reforms together with a major injection of resources”. The Department of Justice is studying the implications of these recommendations at present. The report will, it is expected, also be examined by the Working Group on a Courts Commission which is examining the courts system in general.
The report recommends the establishment of a system of regional family courts within the Circuit Court. In this context the Courts and Court Officers Act, 1995, provides for an increase in the maximum number of judges who may be appointed to the courts. The Minister obtained Government approval for the appointment of seven additional judges of the Circuit Court. These additional appointments will be made as soon as possible. The Minister is confident that the appointment of these additional judges will provide the courts with the resources necessary to deal effectively with existing delays and arrears, including family law cases, and assist in the prompt disposal of cases in the future. It is not possible at this time to say if further additional judges would be required following the introduction of legislation permitting divorce. The situation will, however, be kept under review.
A major courts refurbishment programme is under way by the Department of Justice and an integral part of that programme is the provision of family law court facilities. These include separate courtrooms, consultation rooms and private waiting areas to meet the needs of those attending the courts in family law related matters.
Separate family law facilities are now available in Athlone, Arklow, Bray, Cork District Court complex, Donegal, Dungarvan, Enniscorthy, Galway, Kilkenny, Loughrea, Waterford and in the District, Circuit and High Court of Dublin. These facilities will also be available in the refurbished courthouses  in Ballina, Ballinasloe and Clonmel, which will be completed shortly. The Minister is committed under this refurbishment programme to providing the best possible facilities for the transaction of family law business as quickly as possible with the resources available to her.
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