Check against Delivery

 

Minister of State James Browne speech 

5 Jurisdictions Family Law Conference - Family Lawyers' Association of Ireland / Family Court Bill

 

 

 

Saturday 28 May 2022,

 

I am delighted to be invited here to speak with you this morning at the 5 Jurisdictions Family Law Conference.

 

I would like to begin by welcoming all of the Family Lawyers Association members of Ireland, as well as those attending from similar associations in Northern Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales. I would also like to offer a warm welcome to the members of the Judiciary who are with us here today.

 

Minister McEntee is determined to overhaul the operation of the Family Justice system and has made a clear commitment to do just that in Justice Plan 2022. I would like to take this opportunity to outline some of the significant reforms both she and I are committed to implementing.

 

Improving access to justice for all and modernisation of the family courts system into a more efficient and family friendly process is a priority for my Department. As many of you will be aware, towards the end of 2019, the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality issued a report that called for a major overhaul of the family law system and made 38 recommendations across a range of areas in family justice including in relation to the family court structure; specialisation and training of professionals, lawyers and judges; resourcing; transparency and the voice of the child.

 

Key among these recommendations was the introduction of legislation for the establishment of a dedicated and integrated Family Court, to provide a vital service to members of the public who are experiencing familial distress.

 

The Government is committed to enacting a Family Court Bill to create a new dedicated, Family Court within existing court structures as well as providing for procedures that support a faster and less adversarial resolution of disputes in specialised centres. In September 2020, the Government approved Minister McEntee’s proposal for the drafting of this Bill. I am delighted to say that work is progressing on the drafting of the Bill, with a view to its publication as soon as possible.

 

A set of guiding principles will be included within the Bill to help ensure that the Family Court system operates in an efficient manner, encouraging active case management and, of course, making the best interests of the child a primary consideration in all family law proceedings.

 

The Family Court Bill is a key element in transforming the family justice system. It will provide for the establishment of a District Family Court, a Circuit Family Court and a Family High Court as divisions within the current court structures, each dealing with family law matters as appropriate to its jurisdiction.

 

Ensuring that those involved in family court proceedings have the specialist supports required will lead to a more efficient and user-friendly system for all those attending court.

 

The new Family Court will put children and families at the centre of its activities, facilitate access to specialist supports and encourage the use of alternative dispute resolution in family law proceedings in cases where this is appropriate. It is also the intention that the Family Court will sit to hear family law proceedings (including child care proceedings) in a different building or room from that in which other court sittings are held or on different days or at different times from other court sittings.

 

Both Minister McEntee and I  hope that the enactment of the legislation will enable a greater proportion of non-contentious family law matters to be dealt with at District Court level, thus reducing the costs for litigants.

 

The Bill will provide for the appointment of judges on a full-time basis, to both the District Family Court and the Circuit Family Court who are deemed, by reason of their training or experience, to be suitable to deal with the sensitive matters which often accompany family law. This will be supported by the introduction of ongoing professional training in the area of family law with the aim of appointing judges to the Family Court who have a particular interest and suitability for determining family law proceedings dealing with such cases on an ongoing basis.

 

The establishment of a dedicated Family Court structure will form a core part of our  forthcoming Family Justice Strategy, which will set out a high-level vision and key medium and longer-term objectives for the development of a national family justice system.

 

My Department established a Family Justice Oversight Group to develop the new strategy. The Group comprises the key State actors in this space, namely the Department of Justice, Courts Service, Judiciary, Legal Aid Board, the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform.

 

To assist its work, this Group has engaged in a phased consultation process where relevant stakeholders, the public, children and young people who engage with the family justice system gave their views on how a modernised family justice system should look. As part of the consultation process, two advisory groups have also been established comprising a subset of NGOs and practitioners and academics to further engage on issues emerging from the initial consultation phases. The Family Lawyers Association played an integral role in this important work and I thank them for sharing their expertise with us.

 

A number of issues are being considered for inclusion in the emergent Family Justice Strategy, including: how the courts work; the availability of and access to support services; the potential use of less adversarial approaches to the resolution of disputes; information dissemination and awareness raising; and oversight of the implementation of any proposed reforms.

 

My Department has also engaged academic experts to conduct research into carrying out a review of the Guardianship of Infants Act 1964, relating to guardianship of children whose parents are not married or in a civil partnership. I expect that this review will be completed and published later this year.

 

Among the other recommendations made by the Committee was that consideration be given to whether laws should be amended to take into account peoples’ experiences of parental alienation. These situations occur where one parent is wrongfully influencing their child or children against the other parent, thereby creating unfair and unwarranted alienation that can be destructive and life lasting. In order to better inform further discussion on parental alienation, my Department arranged for research to be carried out.

 

The aims of the research included identifying the various definitions and characteristics of parental alienation being used internationally and investigating what is known about the prevalence of this issue both in Ireland and internationally through examination of the literature.

 

The research also included identifying and outlining the various approaches and responses in other jurisdictions to dealing with the issue of parental alienation. Work was carried out on describing, outlining and evaluating any studies which have examined the effectiveness of these various international approaches and their relevance to the Irish context.

 

A  public consultation on the topic was opened yesterday, providing a valuable opportunity for those interested to share their views. The consultation and research will inform consideration of the matter further, including whether any policy and/or legislative responses may be required.

 

In closing, I would like to thanking you again for inviting me here today to share my Department’s vision for building a family law system that is fair, efficient and humane, underpinned by robust legislation. With your help, we will make the courts a safer and more understanding place for all of those who attend - especially our most vulnerable court users.

 

ENDS

 

 

 

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