Family law courts ‘too adversarial’, says judge

Ireland’s family law courts are “too adversarial” and face a range of problems which need to be dealt with, a High Court judge has warned.

Mr Justice Michael White said that while a high number of family cases ended up being settled, this generally occurred only on the date a hearing has been scheduled for or shortly before.

Speaking at the annual conference of the Legal Aid Board in Dublin yesterday, he outlined a lengthy list of other problems which also needed to be confronted.

He said family law courts outside Dublin did not sit continuously, there was a difficulty scheduling cases in courts outside Dublin, and inadequate facilities in some court venues.

Mr Justice White said a disproportionate amount of time was being given over to “high-conflict cases”.

Delays in assigning legal aid to parties was having the knock-on effect of delaying hearings. Another key issue, he said, was a lack of continuity in assigning judges.

The Department of Justice is preparing a Family Courts Bill, which would allow for the setting up of dedicated family law courts to improve levels of judicial expertise and training in family law matters and streamline family law proceedings.

Mr Justice White said he believed it would be essential that a judge in a family law court serve there for a minimum of three years before returning to the main District or Circuit Court.

“One issue, and I think there is no secret about it, is quite a few judges don’t like doing family law,” he added. “I think you need a particular temperament.”

Judge Kathryn Hutton of the Circuit Court told the conference people were showing up in court unrepresented and that delays in the legal aid process were holding up cases.

She said it was not unusual for her court to hear of delays of three to six months.

“Access to justice is recognised as a fundamental right in our democratic system. A failure to vindicate this right is being observed on a daily basis in the family law court in the form of impecunious unrepresented litigants,” she said.

Judge Gerard Furlong of the District Court said he encountered a lot of unrepresented parties who, on the face of it, were entitled to legal aid.

However, they invariably told him they could not afford the contribution litigants are required to pay towards their fees under the civil legal aid system.

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