Lives “put on hold” by court delays, divorce solicitor says

The Irish Times – July 25, 2016

Separation hearings take up to 52 weeks to be listed in Wexford, Tullamore and Dundalk

The lives of couples seeking a divorce or separation are being “put on hold” by court delays, a leading family law solicitor has said.

There is a countrywide problem and the “whole system is on its knees”

“The major stresses in all our lives now is the way the system is managed,” they said.

Courts Service figures show that, in 2015, couples waited up to 52 weeks in Wexford, Tullamore and Dundalk before their ready-to-begin, contested cases were listed before the Circuit Family Court.

Our source, a family law solicitor, who has worked in family law for 40 years, said that, at a recent sitting in Castlebar, Co. Mayo, there were 27 cases listed over four days, including contested cases. The case she was involved in had already been adjourned once and had been given priority.

Though experts had travelled to court to give evidence, there was “no way it was going to be reached”, she said. It had to be adjourned again and the couple involved was extremely upset.

Our family law solicitor said another case was listed for hearing in June in one of the three courtrooms in Dublin, at Phoenix House, but did not take place , even though it appeared other courts there had completed their lists early.

The case was not given a new date until January 2017.

She also said there was a “bottleneck” at case progression stage – the stage after initial documents are filed – before cases are deemed ready to begin, and before the Courts Service begins measuring wait times.

“People’s lives are put on hold,” she said. “I’ve been doing this game a long, long time now and I have to say, it is the worst it has ever been.”

A Cork-based solicitor, who did not wish to be named, said one of the difficulties is that a judge may have, for example, eight non-contested and four contested cases listed before them.

The non-contested cases are dealt with first but, unless some of the contested cases settle, two will not be reached. “Those cases will be given another date, with priority, a number of months later; that happens regularly enough,” he said.

That, in turn, affects waiting lists for new cases.

He said there needed to be more hearing days to deal with “the six or nine-month backlog”.

A spokesman for the Courts Service said there was “no issue as to the availability of courts or courtrooms”.

“There was a knock-on effect throughout 2015 in some areas as to the availability of judges as there was a high level of promotion and retirement in the second half of 2014,” he said.

He also said, from time to time, matters can arise after case progression which affect the ability of the case to go ahead on its allocated date.

“This has affected the waiting times in some areas more than others,” he said.

Responding to concerns about Dublin, he said President of the Circuit Court, Mr Justice Raymond Groarke, recently organised one court in Phoenix House to hear urgent applications throughout the day, while the other two courts are assigned three hearings each. If cases settle, a court may check with another court to see if there are cases it can take over.

“If cases unexpectedly finish early, it allows court registrars more time to draft orders and judges to prepare for the court list for the following day and read any reports,” he said.

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