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The Minister for Justice, Alan Shatter, is currently in the process of making amendments and changes to the family law system in Ireland. Under the proposals contained in the Courts Bill 2013, he is pushing to remove family law cases from the District Court, where they are currently held. The new bill prvides for a new lower court that would deal solely with family law and childcare issues and a higher court that would have unlimited juristiction over all family law matters including adoption and child abduction. As part of the changes being proposed the ‘in camera’ ban on press reporting on family law cases will belifted, finally giving the public an insight into the decisions and proceedings in family law cases. This means that the media will be able to report on court proceedings on divorce, seperation, domestic violence, maintenance and custody matters.
There would be a strict ban on the publication of any information or material that would lead to the identification of individuals involved in the proceedings and any journalists who break these rules will be subject to fines of up to €50,000 euro and up to three years imprisonment. The Childrens Ombudsman has raised concerns over the proposed changes, Emily Logan has written to the Ministers office to voice her “serious concerns” over the possible identification of individuals, retraction of abuse disclosures and her fears that the changes may deter parties form going to court.
There has been little progress since the 1996 Law Reform Commission Report on Family Law and the changes are long overdue and in the main to be welcomed. It finally holds the court to account and public scrutiny over issues pertaining to the family that were previously not published. It will also give us statistics and an insight into the decisions reached in family law courts. The legal systems and its processes is in serious need of reform for a long time now in the area of Guardianship, access and custody cases, these changes will make the family law courts more transparent and accountable.
There are enhanced rights afforded to children under international charters and treaties, most recently the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights which requires that the best interests of the child is a primary consideration in all actions concerning children and that childrens views must be taken into account in matters that concern them in accordance with their age and maturity. This may mean that more children will be required to address the court, to outline their feelings in relation to custody and access, although this happens to a lesser degree at the moment, children who are of an acceptable age and level of maturity should be consulted as to their wishes.
At present most judges view meeting directly with children in a family law court as traumatic to children, however in other juristictions child psychologists and family mediators work with the family to work on shared parenting arrangements. The mediation process has proved to be effective in Britain, Australia and New Zealand and it is an option that Monister Shatter should consider implementating as part of his reform of the Family Law Court, under the Courts Bill of 2013.