I am reiterating my call for the Government to prioritise its Programme for Government commitment of drafting a new Family Courts Bill.
This landmark piece of legislation will greatly modernise the family justice system and bring about a speedier resolution to many families who remain trapped in a backlog of lengthly and delayed court proceedings.
In September 2020, the Government took a major first step towards improving access to justice, for those who require legal solutions to complex legal family matters, by publishing the General Scheme of the Family Courts Bill.
Nevertheless, the prevailing pandemic has highlighted the urgent need for this Bill to be drafted and implemented in order to ease significant pressure within the courts system and subsequently allows families to move on with their lives, which have already changed dramatically over the last eighteen months.
I firmly believe that the drafting of this Bill should be prioritised as part of the Government’s autumn legislative programme.
For the first time ever, we will have a dedicated family justice system with dedicated family courts in all three jurisdictions namely the District court, the Circuit court and the High Court. This will be one of the largest transformations of the family justice system – almost five decades since the Law Reform Commission first examined the issue.
As someone who practiced as a family lawyer and mediator for 20 years, I am particularly pleased to see that the Bill will encourage greater usage of alternative dispute resolution in family law proceedings. Those going through marital breakdown are always free to choose their mediators, however there is no chance of choosing your own judge, whose main role is to ultimately decide a case in the amount of time they have before the next couple enter the courtroom.
Giving evidence mere metres away from your former partner can be daunting and draining – not to mention cross-examination. By choosing mediation, couples can communicate with their mediator on a confidential basis and in the full knowledge that they have been afforded as much time as they possibly can to reach the best possible compromise.
The Bill will also ensure that proceedings and processes are more efficient and more user-friendly. I want to pay tribute to the Courts Service, which has done tremendous work in ensuring that many cases across the justice sector could proceed remotely over the last year. Going forward, there needs to be an added effort to ensure that all court matters (including full hearings and not just consent matters) are up and running whether remotely or in person as soon as possible.
Budget 2021 saw a record €3 billion allocated to the Department of Justice to fund the reform and upgrade of digital infrastructure across the Justice Sector; the Courts Service modernisation programme; as well as wider changes across the sector.
Remote hearings can play a massive role in clearing many of the backlogged family-law cases however, this cannot happen without increased resources and funding, which I hope can be delivered in Budget 2022.
Improving access to the courts and building a family justice system for everyone has always been a priority of Fine Gael in Government. I hope that we can prove this once again with the urgent progression of this Bill.”