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30/10/2007

Future of Family Law Courts discussed as Chief Justice presents Minister with report & recommendations.

Courts Service establishes special committee to implement recommendations on family law courts  ... Government could establish dedicated Family Court Division ... Family Courts could have information office in the regions ... increased role for mediation services could ease burden on courts  ... expansion of regulation could allow bona fide press attend family law proceedings ...

The Courts Service today launches Dr Carol Coulter's report on the Family Law Reporting Pilot Project. It will be presented to the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Brian Lenihan TD, by the Chief Justice, the Hon Mr Justice John L. Murray.

This report sums up the work of the one-year pilot project, undertaken by Dr Coulter for the Courts Service. It comes in two parts. The first part deals with the reporting projects itself and makes suggestions for the future direction of Family Law Matters, i.e. that the project should continue. The second part deals with the family law system as a whole and identifies possible areas for change and reorganisation.

Reporting on Family Law

Family Law Matters is a series of reports created to shine a light on family courts and to dispel myths and misunderstandings which exist from an historic lack of information in this very relevant and human area of law.

This initiative was permitted by a change in the law on the in camera rule in family law. Dr Carol Coulter was engaged to carry out the reporting of family law, on a pilot basis. The identity of participants is protected and the area of law examined is explained in accessible and useable language.

Dr. Coulter makes 18 recommendations on the future of the Family Law Reporting Project - among them:

  • The Courts Service should decide if it is appropriate for it to provide a reporting service on family law, and if so, it should decide what such a service would consist of.
  • The Minister should consider whether The Regulations, naming those entitled to attend family law proceedings, could be amended to allow bona fide members of the press to attend.
  • The Courts Service should obtain clarification of the legislation as to whether any barrister or solicitor can prepare reports on family law for the media.
  • If the Courts Service decides to continue the project it should do so for another year ? while progressing the digital recording of judgments.
  • From 2009, or earlier if practicable, the Courts Service should publish judgments, decisions, statistics and some reports or sample cases on the Courts Service website.
  • The Courts Service should consider nominating a representative to liaise with academic institutions on family law.
  • The creation of a new Rule of Court to allow judges to give direction in court to those reporting family law proceedings, particularly on how to maintain litigants' anonymity.
  • The CSO should be asked to extend its examination of statistics in the Courts Service to family law.
The Family Law System

Quote: "The unplanned development of the family law system has led to a situation where, despite the best efforts of court staff and judges to provide a service to the public, lists are over-crowded; cases, including urgent cases involving matters relating to the welfare of children, are adjourned for weeks or months at a time; courts often sit late into the night; and litigants cannot be sure that, if their case is adjourned, it will be heard by the same judge when it resumes. Practices and procedures can vary from District to District and Circuit to Circuit, compounding a general lack of information about how the family law system works."  - Dr Carol Coulter

The second part of this report deals with the family law system as a whole. Dr. Coulter makes 27 recommendations, many of which echo those of the Law Reform Commission's 1996 Report on the Family Courts. Four of Dr. Coulter's recommendations require Government action to come into force and the remainder could be put in place through organisational changes.

The following are included in Dr Coulter's recommendations on the family law system:

  • The Government should establish a new Family Court Division of the Circuit Court, based on a regional network of 10-15 centres around the country.
  • Each full-time Regional Family Court should maintain an information office and mediation facilities.
  • Where children's welfare is a priority, applicants should be required to undergo a minimum number of mediation sessions before a case could go to litigation.
  • Mediated settlements could be brought before the court and made binding.
  • Case management should be built into the system - (this can be done regardless of whether a family law division is established).

The Courts Service Board considered the report and decided:

  • The project should continue for one further year, managed by the Information Office and be further reviewed then
  • a Special Committee be established to review the Report and the implementation of the recommendations and to oversee the project for one more year.

ends