Launch of Family Mediation Service in Dolphin House
Speech of the Chief Justice the Hon Mr Justice John L. Murray at the launch of new family law service in Dolphin House Dublin
Members of the judiciary, ladies and gentlemen,
Welcome to Dolphin House this afternoon for the launch of important a new mediation service which aims to provide families facing the trauma of marriage breakdown and other disputes with an alternative to the cost, both personal and financial, of the full rigours of litigation through the courts.
Few are more aware of the need for meaningful alternatives to court action than the staff of Dolphin House, which is Ireland’s busiest family law office, accounting for one third of all barring orders and 41% of all safety orders issued in the State. They are faced every day with the severe difficulties presented when the special bonds which normally keep a couple together, or provide safety for a family, can lead to the courts being asked to intervene to protect those in peril or to decide on intractable and painful issues.
In an office as busy as this, it is essential that all of the systems and processes are efficient and speedily bring matters to court or to an alternative resolution. I am very glad to say that the services we are marking here this afternoon offer such access.
As Chairperson of the Board of the Courts Service I am very pleased that the structural changes and additions to the courts in Dublin in the past year or so have allowed for extra family courts and space for associated services. As a result of these efforts, it has been possible to support one additional family law court and one childcare court in Dolphin House, which has had an immediate positive impact on waiting times for court users.
Family mediation initiative
It has also allowed space in this building to accommodate the new initiative which is being launched here this evening - a 12 month pilot scheme which offers a mediation-focussed process as an alternative to litigation. This initiative concentrates on cases involving the welfare of children, such as those addressing custody, access and guardianship matters and also those which may have a maintenance element. The District Court staff here will advise the parties, in suitable cases, of the availability of, and information about, the new mediation service.
The Family Mediation Service (FMS) - which is not means tested - will advise parties in general terms as to the purpose of mediation and its advantages in the family law setting. If a party is interested, a briefing session is scheduled to explain the mediation process, following which the party is provided with a certificate by the FMS which effectively acts as a fast-tracking mechanism to issue an application through the Courts Service. The certificate also provides access to on-site Legal Aid Board services, such as general information, and also to legal advice on-site in Dolphin House - subject to the normal financial eligibility criteria.
Dr. Moling Ryan and his team in the Legal Aid Board are to be congratulated for making a major contribution to the development of this initiative. The efforts of Pat Bennett and Michael O’ Kennedy of the Family Support Agency have also borne fruit in this project.
It is a key objective of the initiative to seek to engage parties in a mediation process prior to issuing court proceedings. In the majority of cases, issues arising from family breakdown are most likely to be best resolved through mutual agreement. Mediation, particularly in advance of the "locking of horns" in legal proceedings, is of primary importance in achieving this. It is important to note, however, that there is no bar on persons getting information about mediat ion or persons attending mediation where court proceedings are already instituted. Equally important is that arrangements are in place to refer mediated settlements to a judge for approval - for example, in cases concerning the appointment of a guardian.
The need for such services; new statistics
The need for alternatives to litigation and for information and support services is particularly evident in the light of the increasing volume of applications cases before the family law courts. Applications concerning minors, for instance - the majority of which are made in the District Court - continue to rise. Applications for supervision orders increased by 16% to 731 last year, while care orders increased by 11% to over 1,000. Last year witnessed a 15% increase in guardianship, custody and access cases to over 7,000 while applications to the District Court under the domestic violence legislation increased to almost 10,000.
Behind these statistics is of course the anguish and hardship of each individual case, and these figures starkly underline the need for the individuals involved to receive the necessary support and assistance to address their circumstances in an appropriate and sensitive manner. When emotions are high and parties are in distress, it is vital to have an alternative to court action given that litigation can exacerbate the existing difficulties arising from a breakdown in family relationships, particularly where the welfare and future of children is at stake.
Making it easier to find information about family law
The provision of information regarding family law is also crucial. A great deal of detailed, accurate, and inaccurate information abounds in relation to many areas of the law. Family law, due to operation of the in camera rule, is a particular focus of misconceptions and criticism. However, the courts have always been conscious of the sense of isolation people can feel when they are in a family law situation - maybe due to violence; the threat of violence; or simply feeling ignored, helpless or powerless.
With this in mind the Courts Service has since its foundation put great effort into establishing and continually developing its website at www.courts.ie, to provide accessible and readily available information on the courts to the public.
A new section of the website is now operational to help those interested in family law to find relevant information. Family law practitioners, other professionals, lay litigants and the public can access information on the key topics in family law across all the jurisdictions including judicial separation, divorce, guardianship, maintenance and domestic violence.
This newly available information is provided in a series of guides with relevant legislation highlighted and with links to the most frequently used court forms included. There is information on court procedure, explanation of legal terms and links to the websites of other agencies who can assist those involved in family law cases. The section also explains processes such as case progression, mediated agreements and collaborative law.
The new section builds on the work undertaken by the Courts Service in recent years to shine a light on the operation of the family courts. This included the publication of ‘Family Law Matters’ - a series of reports of cases heard in the District Court, Circuit Court and High Court between 2007 and 2009. These reports, all of which are still available on the website, provided snapshots of what happens in the courtroom and helped to dispel some of the misapprehensions surrounding the application of family law.
The new website section will guide people through the family law process by providing easy to access information on a range of topics in a clear step-by-step format. I am very grateful for the support from staff and the judiciary across all jurisdictions in collating the new material and in bringing the important new Dolphin House service to fruition. I am also grateful t o Tom Ward, Principal Officer in the area of Circuitand District Civil law, the Legal Aid Board, the Family Support Agency and the Family Mediation Service, for their involvement and leadership in the new service.
The importance of the new service and the enthusiasm with which it has been brought about is bound to bring a better experience for those who attend here to seek redress before our courts. All involved are to be commended.