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Family Law Solicitors

We need to make divorce quicker, cheaper and a more dignified process

Friday, 13 February 2015

The Irish Times

by Kate Holmquist

Marriage breakdown, separation and divorce are excruciating for everyone involved – the exes and their children feel their world crashing down around them. The divorcing couple’s finances, their home, relationships with their children and their friendships – everything is up for grabs. No one gets married believing a divorce is in their future, but when it falls apart – usually after years of trying to hold it together – the pain may seem unendurable.

So why as a society do we make the hurt worse? The State, the justice system and the Constitution have created a punitive system of divorce. At the very point when people in crisis need support, they are instead given one legal hurdle after the next, with the lawyers’ coffers growing. When marriages are broken, as a society we further punish the couple involved by making divorce more difficult in Ireland than in almost any other place in the world.

That is what we have learned from readers’ responses to the “Divorce, Irish style” series in The Irish Times, which began on January 17th and has continued this week with more readers’ divorce stories.

We’ve learned that people fight for their marriages. No one walks away easily and no one is unscathed. Couples stay married far longer than they should thereby sacrificing their sanity, as marriage counselling expert John Farrelly told us would be the situation on the first day of the series.

“It’s called marriage breakdown because it’s broken,” writes a man whose life has been turned upside down, driving him into serious mental health issues that he has since recovered from. His ex-wife falsely accused him of abusing her and the children, a shallow claim considering that today he has the children and she has left the scene.

We have “no fault” divorce, but in reality lawyers encourage their clients to fight every inch of the way, arguing that this is in their clients’ best interests. The process requires four years of separation out of the past five, so that divorcing couples must live in a legal limbo for what could be a large portion of their children’s childhoods.

In the dozens of heartbreaking readers’ stories that we have received, many of them published, in no case did the difficulty of divorce bring couples to reunion.

Instead, the fact that divorce takes too long, costs too much and leaves people even more miserable than they were before, drives couples farther apart at the very time when they need to work together to reclaim their individual lives, especially if they have children who need “co-parents” who can rear them in agreement with one another.

In theory, a DIY divorce can be obtained for a few hundred euro, but that’s only if the divorcing couple can agree. And by its very definition, divorce is about alienation, anger and even despair. We have “no fault” divorce, so called, but in practice the courts require divorcing couples to hire expensive lawyers who will find fault, exaggerating the division and making more money with every letter sent and court paper filed. Two days in civil court cost €15,000. Our readers have told us of divorces costing five times that. Men and women have sold houses and land to afford it.

One of the worst aspects, in addition to the life-altering expense that has people losing their homes, is the humiliating atmosphere of the family court, where divorcing couples and their lawyers must discuss intimate matters in a crowded public area in the full hearing of the scrum.

One reader told us that out of all she went through, this humiliating experience still gives her nightmares. Our legal reporter Fiona Gartland, who has assiduously covered the family law courts, confirmed that it’s a cattle market of haggling and mutual accusations. The laborious and expensive Irish-style divorce is a result of the State attempting to mollify the Catholic Church following the narrow passing of the divorce referendum 20 years ago. Irish society has changed dramatically since then.

People are emotionally intelligent, they no longer accept that marriage should be a trap, they expect more from relationships. Twenty years ago, divorce was a terrifying prospect for many people. The church still held sway and warned of the breakdown of society, not just marriage, should divorce become legal. But society hasn’t broken down.

The marriage rate today is higher than it was 20 years ago. The notion that a couple in a state of irretrievable breakdown must remain separated in a kind of limbo for four years before they can resolve the matter and get on with their lives, is one that led family law expert Carol Coulter to argue, during the series, that the Constitution must be changed.

The four-year requirement doesn’t take into account the fact that before a separation becomes formal, there have already been years of unhappiness. As one man writes, the process of divorce took 10 years out of his life, and this is a man who bent over backwards to get along with his ex and co-parent the children.

The children of divorced parents, who also wrote about their experiences during the series, confirmed that the longer the heartbreaking process of divorce went on, the more they were hurt. One child of divorce argued that divorce should be quick, so that everyone can get on with their lives afterwards.

Instead, we have a system where an ex can go back to court with further demands for the rest of their lives if they want to. For the sake of the children, the divorce process should discourage such combativeness, rather than encourage it.

The cost of divorce, the lengthy, emotionally cruel process and the hideous atmosphere of the family law courts can all be changed.

Our legislators need to look at the reality and make divorce quicker, cheaper and at least give people a family court that has privacy and dignity.