COUPLES who want to end their marriage could be forced to take part in mandatory counselling and mediation as part of proposals for a radical overhaul of the family law system being considered by the Government.
The reforms, the most ambitious ever proposed for Ireland’s divorce and separation system, were the brainchild of former Justice Minister Alan Shatter but are now being considered by his successor, Frances Fitzgerald.
At present, separating couples who wish to part without going to court can seek to resolve their issues through the Family Mediation Service (FMS).
The free, confidential service is for married and non-married couples who try to sort out matters such as parenting, financial support and issues relating to the family home and other property.
However, many couples experience huge delays in accessing mediation which, since 2011, has been transferred to the Legal Aid Board.
Delays accessing mediation and free legal advice exacerbates the conflict between many couples enduring separation and divorce.
Under the proposals now being considered by Ms Fitzgerald, couples could be forced to engage in mandatory counselling before seeking the intervention of the courts.
The idea is to reduce the stress on families and reduce the high legal costs associated with separation and divorce.
The hope is that through counselling conflict will be reduced around sensitive issues such as custody, access and who remains in the family home.
Mr Shatter, who worked as a family law solicitor, started a review of divorce and separation laws amid claims that district and circuit courts were creaking under the spiralling family law case load.
CSO figures have shown that the number of divorced people has increased by 150pc over the past decade – although rates are still far behind countries like the UK and Germany.
In 2002, Ireland had 35,059 divorced people – but that rose to 87,770 by 2011/2012. The marital break-up rate in Ireland has also risen from 8.7pc in 2006 to 9.7pc in 2011/2012.
However, campaigners are now worried that the ambitious reforms may fall victim to the Government’s crowded legislative schedule, with a general election due by 2016.
West Cork-based family law solicitor and reform campaigner, Helen Collins, said changes must urgently be made.
“We need a sea-change in terms of separation and divorce. We need to move away from the adversarial model and support our families in a different way when they set about separation or divorce,” she added.
Ms Collins wants Ireland to adopt the Canadian and Australian model, where the emphasis is on counselling and mediation.
Studies in both countries have shown that mandatory counselling and mediation have reduced by 50pc the number of cases which end up in costly court litigation.