Priority Questions. - Mediation and Legal Aid Services.

Wednesday, 19 February 1997

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 475 No. 2

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  8.  Dr. McDaid  Information on James McDaid  Zoom on James McDaid   asked the Minister for Equality and Law Reform  Information on Mervyn Taylor  Zoom on Mervyn Taylor   the extent of mediation services and legal aid services made available by his Department in the north west and nationally following the divorce referendum. [4597/97]

Minister for Equality and Law Reform (Mr. Taylor): Information on Mervyn Taylor  Zoom on Mervyn Taylor  The rapid and nationwide expansion which the Legal Aid Board has undergone since 1992 has been undertaken to ensure that an effective civil legal aid and advice structure is in place nationally and locally to provide, among other matters, legal aid and advice to couples whose marriages have broken down. This expansion can now been seen as necessary and timely having regard to an anticipated increase in applications to the board for legal services on the introduction of divorce. Funding for the Legal Aid Board has increased from just under £2.7 million in 1992 to £8.3 million in 1996, an increase of more than three times the 1992 figure. Over the same period staff numbers increased by two-and-a-quarter from 99 to 224, and I amended the scheme of civil legal aid and advice to enable the Legal Aid Board introduce a scheme for the use of private solicitors in delivery of legal services to legal aid applicants. This provision is now reflected in the Civil Legal Aid Act, 1995. The recent addition [347] of a further two law centres at Newbridge and Tullamore brings to 30 the total of full-time law centres in the nationwide network as compared to 16 in 1993. These include two full-time centres in the north-west at Letterkenny and Sligo.

My achievements to date in expanding and developing the Legal Aid Board is evidence of my determination to ensure that subject to budgetary considerations sufficient resources are made available to the Legal Aid Board to enable it to provide an adequate response to all challenges which it may face in the future and, in particular, the challenge posed by the introduction of divorce.

It is not possible at this stage to quantify the projected case load of the Legal Aid Board in 1997 arising from the enactment of the Family Law (Divorce) Act, 1996. It is reasonable, however, to assume that a proportion of the approximately 4,000 judicial separation cases legally aided by the board to date will revert to the board for services in respect of divorce, as well as an unknown number of first time requests for legal aid for divorce proceedings.

The family mediation service of my Department has also made significant progress in equipping itself to meet the challenge of divorce. Family mediation is a professional confidential service which enables couples who have decided to separate or who have already separated to negotiate their own separation agreement with the help of a trained mediator, without resorting to adjudication through the courts. All issues are included in the negotiations, such as ongoing parenting of the children, the family home, family finances, pensions, property and any other issues relevant to the separation.

The first stage of the programme for development and expansion of the Family Mediation Service is almost complete. A new service co-ordinator was appointed on 4 November 1996. The new post of area mediation co-ordinator for the new centre at Mill House, Henry Street, Limerick, was filled on 2 December 1996 and the appointment of an area mediation co-ordinator to the existing family mediation centre at the Irish Life Centre, Lower Abbey Street, Dublin, will be made during the coming week. The persons appointed will be responsible for delivery of a quality mediation service, with the assistance of a team of mediators, each for his or her own geographical areas of responsibility. With the management structure in place it is now possible to proceed with the recruitment of further staff for the service and this is proceeding apace. Deputies may be aware of recent advertisements in national newspapers, and in some provincial newspapers, seeking applications for positions as part-time mediators with the Family Mediation Service.

The appointment of area mediation co-ordinators will also facilitate the establishment of a scheme for the use of mediators in private practice, who have the necessary training and experience [348] and otherwise meet the standards set by the Family Mediation Service, to provide family mediation at locations distant from a family mediation centre or to relieve pressure on the centres at Dublin and Limerick. The allocation of cases to private mediators will be done through the Family Mediation Service. Mediation services for the north west will be provided for in the context of the development of a national service.

Dr. McDaid: Information on James McDaid  Zoom on James McDaid  Does the Minister agree that there were three separate sections to the divorce referendum — namely, counselling, mediation and the courts? Does he also agree that mediation is entered into when counselling has broken down? Is it not correct that mediation is vitally important? A message should issue from the Minister's Department that it is vitally important to avoid litigation if possible. Consideration must be given to the fact that children are invariably involved in litigation proceedings. Children are most traumatised when cases come before the courts, particularly if such cases are highly publicised.

The Government should make it known that it is encouraging the mediation service and will be providing further funding, if possible, towards this area. Of the three areas to which I referred at the outset, would the Minister not agree that this is the most vital if we are to avoid traumatising children by involving them in court cases?

Mr. Taylor: Information on Mervyn Taylor  Zoom on Mervyn Taylor  It is difficult to prioritise these areas because counselling, mediation and the courts service and free legal aid are each extremely important. Deputy McDaid is correct that mediation arises if and when counselling has broken down to see what negotiations can be concluded. It is an extremely important facet but, in the case of divorce, it does not entirely avoid the litigation procedure. Unlike a judicial separation application, any divorce application must go to the courts which are the only bodies authorised to grant decrees of divorce. It is possible to arrange a judicial separation by agreement. This is negotiated by a mediator without the necessity of going before the courts provided the parties are enabled, through the mediation, to agree on all aspects of matters for determination such as property, income, pensions, children, etc.

In the case of divorce, it would be helpful were the parties to mediate and secure the maximum agreement possible before the matter comes before a judge. My Department disseminates the message in every possible way in respect of the availability of services provided by the Department in the areas of free legal aid and mediation and the aid facilities it has made available to many counselling agencies throughout the country. The legislation dealing with divorce and judicial separation requires the respective solicitors representing an applicant and respondent to provide information on counselling and mediation. The solicitors are obligated to do so and certify to the courts that they provided the [349] information and suggested to their clients that the possibility of counselling and mediation is open to them. People are informed of the matter in that fashion.

Dr. McDaid: Information on James McDaid  Zoom on James McDaid  The Minister highlighted the arrangements his Department has made in respect of mediation services. However, these seem to be confined to larger urban areas. Does the Minister agree that adequate provision has not been made for the remainder of the country? I have not encountered any major advertising campaign which states that mediation is now available in rural areas. Is the Department not focusing on larger urban areas where there is a greater need? It must be recognised that a problem exists in rural areas.

Mr. Taylor: Information on Mervyn Taylor  Zoom on Mervyn Taylor  In the case of counselling, there is a wide provision of services in all parts of the country. Deputy McDaid is correct, up to a point, as far as mediation is concerned. There are two Family Mediation Services, operated and financed on a fully comprehensive basis by the State, in Dublin and Limerick. Each centre serves a large hinterland and people from adjoining counties and regions avail of the services provided. In respect of other parts of the country, I intend to arrange, under the auspices of the Family Mediation Service, that private mediators in practice in Dublin or Limerick will be brought in on a contract basis to undertake mediation cases on referral. This will be done in instances where the services of such mediators can be secured.

However, the number of private mediators available on that basis is limited. This service is in its infancy, but the agencies are doing all they can to expand it and provide the necessary training for more people to undertake this very skilled, detailed and professional work. It takes a long time to train a professional mediator. It is not such a major undertaking to train a counsellor who can be trained in a much more modest period of time. Mediation is a different profession requiring years of professional skill, training and practice. We are endeavouring to improve the availability of the skilled professional people that we need. It will take some time. In the meantime I intend to make the best possible use of the skilled personnel available. That can and will be addressed in the two ways I have indicated, through the two centres in Dublin and Limerick, and by making the maximum possible use of the services of private mediators of whom there are no more than 16 or 20 in private practice at various locations around the country.

Dr. McDaid: Information on James McDaid  Zoom on James McDaid  Would it be possible to set up a fast-track system to deal separately and more rapidly with non-contentious cases?

Mr. Taylor: Information on Mervyn Taylor  Zoom on Mervyn Taylor  I doubt it. Mediation, of its nature, does not admit of a fast-track procedure. It is a very extensive procedure and is quite time consuming.

[350]Dr. McDaid: Information on James McDaid  Zoom on James McDaid  I am talking about court cases that failed mediation. Could those cases be dealt with in a fast-track system separate from contentious cases that might drag on?

Mr. Taylor: Information on Mervyn Taylor  Zoom on Mervyn Taylor  Is the Deputy referring to the court hearing of a divorce case?

Dr. McDaid: Information on James McDaid  Zoom on James McDaid  Yes.

Mr. Taylor: Information on Mervyn Taylor  Zoom on Mervyn Taylor  The administration of the courts is a matter for the Minister for Justice. However, where all aspects of property, child custody, pensions, assets and so on have been dealt with and amicably resolved as a result of mediation, I would think that would operate on a fast-track basis because the net issues for determination by the court would be substantially reduced. In such a case the court would be left with little more to do than ensure that the constitutional requirements and the requirements of the Family Law (Divorce) Act had been complied with.

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