The Irish Times view on divorce and the Irish courts: lower costs must be a priority

The onus should be on the legal profession to adapt to the needs of those it serves, rather than the other way around

There is something more than a little self-serving about the opposition of members of the legal profession to moves to have more divorce cases heard in the District Court. The proposal is part of a wider reform of family law services which will involve family divisions in the High Court, Circuit Court and District Court created, with the aim of making the system more user-friendly and efficient.

The plan is that more non-contentious family law matters will be dealt with at District Court level, primarily to minimise the costs for litigants. This includes divorce proceeding where the parties’ assets do not exceed €1 million – and in practice is aimed at fast tracking cases in which the parties have reached an agreement between themselves on the terms of their divorce or separation.

The corollary of legal costs is lawyer’s fees and any argument put forward by the legal profession against the proposed changes must be seen through that lens. The more cases that happen in higher courts, and the longer they take, the higher the fees.

It is not surprising, then, that The Bar of Ireland, which represents barristers, together with the Family Lawyers Association should be asking the Government to drop this provision of the Family Courts Bill 2002 making its way through the Oireachtas. Their argument that the District Court is overburdened seems to downplay the resources that the Government plans to commit to the new family courts, although a certain healthy scepticism is warranted in that regard.

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The more substantive objection that the summary nature of the District Court is unsuited to the sensitive deliberations that characterise divorce and separation also seems to miss the point. The intention is for the District Court to deal with relatively small settlements that have already been agreed and, in the process, reduce rather than add to the stress and costs of the parties.

There will of course be teething difficulties, but the onus should be on the legal profession to adapt to the needs of those it claims to serve, rather than the other way around.

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