Specialist family law courts established as divisions within existing court structures are to be provided for in draft legislation being worked on by the Department of Justice and Equality, the Seanad has been told.
The Programme for Government contains a commitment to create a specialist family law court, and in 2013 former Minister for Justice Alan Shatter announced a referendum would be held on the matter.
However, no referendum was held and in 2014 the Department of Justice and Equality said the issue could be dealt with through legislation.
Speaking in the Seanad on behalf of Minister for Justice and Equality Frances Fitzgerald, Minister of State Kevin Humphreys said while initially it was believed a referendum to amend article 34 of the Constitution was required to remove any obstacle to the establishment of separate family courts, it was now believed this was not necessary.
More recent examination of the issue indicates it will be possible to proceed with the establishment of separate divisions within existing court structures.
The department is finalising proposals for future legislation based on submissions received and consultations with interested parties, he said. It is envisaged a District Family Court, a Circuit Family Court and a Family High Court will be established as divisions of the existing structures.
While full-time judges would be appointed at the District Court and Circuit Court levels, this would not be the case at High Court level, as it is anticipated the caseload would not be sufficient for such a move.
The judges that would be appointed under the new system would be selected on the basis of their training or experience in dealing with the family law area.
Mr Humphreys said the proposed new law would include a set of guidelines that would apply to all family law proceedings and would be designed to facilitate as far as possible the resolution of disputes by means of alternative resolution methods, including mediation, so as to provide for a less adversarial, less stressful and less costly way of resolving disputes.
The Minister, who was updating the Seanad on the development of specialist family law courts following a request from Senator Hildegarde Naughton, said the department intended to bring proposals for the new regime to Government as soon as they are finalised.
The draft general scheme for the legislation would then be referred to the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality, for pre-legislative scrutiny, prior to the formal drafting of the Bill, he said.