Couples who are separating or divorcing can face long family court delays – up to one year in some areas. That’s according to statistics from the Court Service.
Families in Wexford, Tullamore and Dundalk have faced delays of 24 to 52 weeks for a hearing (read more here).
But these families also face further delays before they can even apply to court. Couples are legally required to wait one year for Separation or four years for Divorce, before then.
These Court Service statistics cover 2015 only. Recent statistics given to the Dáil by the Minister for Justice and Equality this summer show vastly reduced waiting times (see details here).
However, the statistics hide additional delays which families face within the process itself, from application right through to hearing. The statistics only reflect how long couples wait once they are ready to apply for a hearing. They do not reflect the entire process itself up to that time.
My personal experience is that the statistics do not reflect the true delays which are still causing terrible damage.
Family Court Delays – My Experience
At this point in my legal career, I have been working in Family Law for almost 25 years. Over this quarter of a century, I have championed and seen many changes in the law, and legal practice. Since I qualified, I have witnessed:
- the introduction of Divorce Law in Ireland
- the recognition of the rights of co-habitees
- the marriage equality referendum, and
- the constitutional vindication of the rights of children.
These advances are welcome and progressive. They give clearer pathways to many clients to resolve their difficulties. But one constant challenge remains. This is the speed at which family law cases are processed. This affects the ease of access which family law clients have to justice. Over 25 years, I’ve seen little progress in how quickly courts deal with family law cases. This problem is particularly acute in the provincial court areas.
Regions worst affected by Family Court Delays
While those living in the large city areas have the benefit of Family Courts which sit every day of the legal term, those in the provincial areas of Ireland, benefit from only one District Court Family Law Day per month, and on average between 4-6 Circuit Family Law weeks per annum.
I regularly attend the local District Courts in County Wicklow and Wexford, where Judges battle with 40 – 60 or more cases in the list each day. Such levels of listing serve neither the clients nor the judges hearing the cases. The cases simply cannot receive the sufficient hearing time which they merit.
Often there simply is not enough time in the day to hear everything, and parties must go home with their situations unresolved, to return the following month. While the Dublin and City lists are also under extreme pressure, this inequality in court sitting time on a national basis must be addressed.
In the Circuit Court, I have lost count of the number of family law weeks which become lost to criminal cases. Again, this is not a problem I am personally aware of in the Dublin area.
Changes needed to reduce Family Court Delays
It is my fervent hope that draft legislation for a new Family Court structure will soon come before the Dail. This legislation should encompass dedicated family law courts and dedicated, experienced family law judges. I also hope this new structure will provide all the ancillary support services, which families and children so badly need at this point of crisis in their lives.
However, as we await this, there are 2 simple key things which could be done immediately, to ease the burden upon families:
2. More Court Days:
Allocate more court days in the provincial courts, to reduce waiting lists and waiting times. Statistics show family court delays of weeks or months for a case to come to court on the first occasion. These figures don’t acknowledge the vast number of cases which are listed on each day. Nor do they acknowledge the inability of the court system to process this amount cases properly. Additional court days in each jurisdiction will allow manageable lists, and help cases to move forward with greater speed.
3. More Judges:
Allocate more judges with family law expertise to determine disputes: Additional court days will of necessity require more judges. In my view, it is vital that’s such Judges have family law expertise. In addition, they should have an interest in hearing family law matters. Family Law in practice is a unique area or practice. It requires a particular skill set to arrive at judgements which benefit the family as a whole.
When a couple or family are in crisis, they need the courts to process their applications in a timely fashion. Justice delayed is often described as justice denied. In the case of family court delays, this results in additional prejudice to families. This creates unnecessary suffering on the part of the children and parents concerned.
Family Court delays force many families to continue to live in stressful, often high conflict situations. This causes untold and lasting damage, especially to children.
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