Inside the family court: ‘I don’t know what to do with him as it is complete chaos’

Applications for barring and protection orders continue apace in Dolphin House, Dublin during the legal holidays

“I’ve been isolated from everyone,” a tearful woman says, as she describes what it has been like living with her husband of almost 20 years.

Dressed in black, she is sitting in Court 47 at the Dublin District Family Court, seeking an interim barring order against her spouse, who is not present.

In a sworn statement, the woman details how the man assaulted her earlier that morning, not for the first time. She claims his abusive behaviour has “escalated” in recent months.

“If my son wasn’t there [this morning], I would be dead,” the woman tells Judge Conal Gibbons.

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Her husband was arrested following the incident, she says, and her adult son stayed at home rather than going to work as they fear “the windows will be put in” once the man is released.

The statement also references how he has “repeatedly belittled” the woman, telling her to shut up and to “do us all a favour and kill yourself”. She says her husband has threatened to kill her. They attended counselling but “it didn’t seem to be doing any good”, she says.

Judge Gibbons grants the woman an interim barring order on an ex parte (one side represented only) basis, which excludes her husband from the family home for eight days, and from watching or being near it. A full hearing, which the man is expected to attend, is set for a later date.

The judge advises the woman to consider availing of legal aid and to approach Women’s Aid for support.

“You are not on your own. There are people there to help you,” he says before she leaves the courtroom.

Thousands of people pass the doors of Dublin District Family Court every day, unaware of the proceedings unfolding inside. Situated on East Essex Street in Temple Bar, Dolphin House deals with domestic violence, guardianship, maintenance payments and other matters.

Inside its doors and up the steps is a dated reception and waiting area with rows of orange-cushioned seats. On the walls are posters showing contact numbers for emergency refuges and domestic violence services, as well as notices about minimising the risks of Covid-19.

There are five courtrooms in the four-storey Victorian building, which was previously a hotel, along with a small number of consultation rooms.

In December 2014, then minister for justice Frances Fitzgerald announced the selection of a site at Hammond Lane in Smithfield as the location for a dedicated family law court complex. Speaking at a law society conference last December, Minister for Justice Helen McEntee said she hoped to see “ground broken” at the site in 2023 “and that this can then be opened by 2026 at the latest”.

During August, one courtroom in Dolphin House will hear emergency family law matters with childcare proceedings ongoing in another. Normal business resumes in September after the legal holidays.

In a separate case, a woman is seeking a protection order against her adult son. A previous one has lapsed, the court hears, and the woman is afraid for her own safety as well as that of her son, who has a developmental disability and has been mixing alcohol and drugs.

“With the mental condition he has, it’s like the perfect storm,” she says, adding that he is “more aggressive and unpredictable every day”.

“I don’t know what to do with him as it is complete chaos.”

The woman says her mental health has deteriorated and the situation is “definitely not getting any better; it’s getting worse”.

She tells the court there are no services for her son and he has been kept in hospital twice under the Mental Health Act.

Judge Gibbons grants the woman a protection order, which prohibits her son from using or threatening violence. A full hearing, which the woman’s son is expected to attend, is set for a later date.

Much of the afternoon is taken up by ex parte applications, with women and men seeking protection from their partners or spouses as well as some parents looking to secure orders against their adult children.

“There are times you go to bed wondering will he attack you,” an older man tells the court, explaining his reasoning for applying for a barring order against his son.

“It’s the drugs, they’re awful and they’re everywhere,” one woman laments, as she secures a protection order against her son.

The last case of the day is an ex parte application for an interim barring order from a man against his wife. He is accompanied by a social worker from Tusla and says he is seeking to protect his children from his wife, who has a “very serious drink problem”.

“It is very serious but I want to help her with this problem,” he says.

The man says he plans to book other accommodation for his wife or arrange for her to stay with family.

“I don’t want to lose my children. I want them to stay with me,” he adds.

The social worker tells the court there have been several referrals to the Child and Family Agency in relation to the woman as well as the impact her drinking is having on the children.

Judge Gibbons grants an interim barring order with a full hearing set to take place next week. He says the man is in an “impossible situation” and it is “obvious” his wife needs to take steps to deal with her addiction. He also notes the current housing crisis but says there are “ways and means” of finding suitable accommodation for the woman.

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