Since the introduction of restrictions on contact and movement between people due to the current health crisis, it has been an alarming and unsettling time for children and families across Ireland. Not to mention the profound impact on the family law courts and the conduct of proceedings.
Many concerns have arisen around legal family issues such as the position on court access orders / family access arrangements and, whether such could materialize in the current sphere. The Law Society, the Bar of Ireland and the Family Law Association came together to seek clarification from the Government on this issue.
The practice direction issued by the President of the District Court, coupled with Regulation 4 (2) (n) of the Health Act 1947 (Section 31A -Temporary Restrictions) (Covid-19) Regulations 2020, has made it clear that parents “should make every effort to allow your child to continue access in a safe, alternative way” under the circumstances.
More detailed information in relation to this has been set out on the Law Society’s guidelines for access: https://www.lawsociety.ie/globalassets/documents/committees/family/access-guidelines-covid-19.pdf
A second issue surrounds the flow of cases through the Family Law Courts. Currently the courts are dealing with urgent matters such as applications and hearings regarding breach of maintenance, access and domestic violence orders during the emergency period, and hearings for temporary guardianship orders. From 18 May 2020, such matters will be treated as urgent by the courts.
While we might hope that there will be relatively few breaches and applications before the court, it is difficult to envisage a situation where everyone involved complies with an order.
Further, with virtual hearings taking place in criminal and civil proceedings, the Family Law division of the District Court have also introduced remote hearings to reduce the accumulation of people in court during the health crisis.
The Practice Direction for the use of Live Television Link, introduced on 19th May 2020, concerns childcare and family law proceedings in the District Court. This is a welcomed development as it improves access to the courts system while having regard to the constitutional rights of the parties and the welfare of children involved in such proceedings.
Further details on initiating the Live Television Link procedure can be found through the Courts Service: https://beta.courts.ie/content/use-live-television-link-civil-proceedings-district-court
While the introduction of remote technology is beneficial in this context, it is important that family law and childcare proceedings continue to be heard in private. It has been acknowledged that only officers of the court, the parties and their legal representatives, witnesses and such other persons as the judge may allow, shall be permitted to be present in the courtroom or at the remote location(s).