Ireland's divorce courts are overloaded and need a complete overhaul to make breaking up fairer and less of a bank-breaking ordeal, an expert report on the secrecy-shrouded system concluded Tuesday.
The government-commissioned report, which offered 45 recommendations to fix the system, faulted the government for doing much too little since the 1997 legalization of divorce in this predominantly Roman Catholic country. Justice Minister Brian Lenihan vowed to make improvements a priority.
The author, Irish Times reporter Carol Coulter, was the first outside expert permitted to witness divorce cases, which are typically conducted without transcripts or detailed written judgments. She spent a year gathering data and testimony on proceedings normally barred to media and other spectators.
Her 82-page report said it was common for crowds of breaking-up couples and their lawyers to be kept waiting around court all day — only for their day in court to be put back for months, even in cases involving a child's welfare. "They must then steel themselves to go through it all again," she said.
Coulter said the problems and potential miscarriages of justice were greatest in provincial towns, where courts set aside time for matrimonial cases only four days out of every month, or less.
"The pressure on the lists forces judges to try to cram as many cases as possible into a day. In such circumstances it is impossible for written judgments to be given, or even for an outline to be given of the judge's reasons for making his or her orders," she wrote.
Throughout the country, she said, the system discouraged people from solving their cases through mediation or other means short of a courtroom confrontation. High legal costs forced some people to represent themselves, slowing down business further.
"According to some practitioners and court staff, in places where delays are very long, people can end up settling on terms they are unhappy with, just to bring an end to the proceedings," she said, adding that some judges worked marathon sessions from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. to try to catch up.
The wishes of children often were not taken directly into account, even though internationally it is common for children's views to play an important role in determining custody, she said.
She said judges, hobbled by a lack of written judgments for reference, "expressed to me their own frustration at the lack of education and training for judges, and at the difficulty in discovering what their colleagues' understanding and practice of family law is."
Irish law permits a couple to file for divorce only after they have been separated for a minimum of four years, a rule intended to give them time to reconcile. Divorce lawyers say this rarely happens. But the delay does encourage more protracted court proceedings involving separate court hearings for separation and divorce.
Tuesday, October 30, 2007