A day in the life of Limerick’s family law court

Anne Sheridan

Reporter:

Anne Sheridan

Painful to witness: the effects of divorce and separation on couples, their children and their livelihoods are easy to see in  any sitting of family law proceedings
A WOMAN sits on the far left pew in court room two of the Limerick Circuit Court complex, gazing out the window as she attempts to hold back the tears.

A WOMAN sits on the far left pew in court room two of the Limerick Circuit Court complex, gazing out the window as she attempts to hold back the tears.

Her ex-partner sits on the opposite side of the bench, and continues to stare at her as if willing her to look at him.

She bites down on her bottom lip, waiting for the judge to begin the case, trying to hide her upset, and appears determined to look at anyone but him.

It’s Monday – one of two sittings each week, where family law cases are heard, and there are 30-odd couples here today, of all nationalities and ages.

Except they are no longer together and are quite visibly set apart – in their demeanour, their body language, their words and now in the law.

‘Why did I marry him?’, ‘Why did I think he should be the father of my child?’ These are the elephants in the room, the frustrations and regrets etched on nearly every woman’s face. The same questions could equally be posed by men, but overwhelmingly it is women taking their ex-partners to court.

Now, it is the law, not love or luck, that will decide how the future will pan out. After once vowing ‘until death do us part’, many of the women sitting here each week are seeking barring and protection orders against their spouses – and even their own children – for death threats, violence, and abuse.

“After our son was born, my partner was diagnosed with schizophrenia. We had a struggle and split up,” explains one woman, who cannot be named due to the strict anonymity clauses in reporting of family law cases. “He would turn drunk and aggressive, and my neighbour had to come over to intervene. Then he smashed in the neighbour’s door and window because he thought we were seeing each other. He was very threatening – he said he’d kill me.”

The safety order of five years was granted. Pooling together all the strength she could muster in the witness box, this small, slim figure walked out alone from the virtually empty courtroom, save for the judge, a garda, two solicitors, the registrar and this reporter.

A sea of other faces would greet her outside, each waiting their turn to come in and present their case. A mother who had a serious drug problem but is now clean is facing another battle as her ex-partner has made constant breaches of the protection order against him. Now, her solicitor said, he turns up outside a coffee shop in the city where he knows she’ll be sitting with friends and tries to join their group.

In addition, he has started sending her photos of himself with a noose tied around his neck. “She’s tormented and pestered and at her wit’s end,” said her defence, as the photos were produced in court. “You cannot communicate with this lady at all – that is harassment. You must stop, and you may not put anything on the internet about this woman and her child,” warned Judge Mary Larkin.

Another couple told the court of how they have now separated, and the father gets to see his child on one afternoon at the weekend, under the supervision of the maternal grandmother.

“What will happen if the child won’t go with him?” the mother asked the judge anxiously. “He hasn’t been in his company for a long time.”

“It is a child’s right to know his father,” responded Judge Larkin, “and there is far greater damage done to a child if he doesn’t know his father.”

The judge instructed the mother that ordering a child to see their father should be as routine as brushing your teeth, and ground rules must be established: “Remember, you’re the parent. If you’re having trouble, go and do a parenting course.”

Both parties in this case also sought safety orders against each other.

“We were fighting and he was dragging and pulling me,” she continued. “I was bruised all over.”

The father’s solicitor appealed to both parties that as this was a once-off episode, at the end of a long-term relationship, safety orders might be of little use to them.

“It would better serve all parties if there were no safety orders. He has no truck or interest in coming to your house. He only wants to see the child. These orders will only muddy the waters.”

In the end, both parties withdrew their applications, and Judge Larkin urged them not to approach each other in an aggressive or threatening manner.

In many other cases, money and not violence led them to court, as many fathers were forced to attend for falling back on their maintenance payments.

“If you fail to attend court, or fail to pay your maintenance I’ll commit you to jail,” said the judge.

Some are paying maintenance from as far afield as Saudi Arabia, while another man who owes €1,235 in maintenance said he hasn’t seen his child in years, after access was cut off in 1999.

Problems arise not just with partners, but also with children.

One woman, whose mother is dying from cancer, said her son recently pulled a knife on her and she needs a protection order.

“I’m also recovering from breast cancer and the stress he is causing me is not good for my health,” she said.

A father in his fifties, who lives in one of Limerick’s Regeneration areas, sought a safety order against his son, who has turned violent due to alcohol and drugs.

He rang Roxboro garda station after his son threw a cup of hot tea at him, and left him with black eyes and lips. The order was granted.

“Thank you love,” he replied to the judge.

One man, who had lost his job in a factory, owed some €2,250 in mounting maintenance since January 2013, but is now, he claimed, on an income of just €110 a week.

However, his ex-partner read out his messages on Twitter, which seemed to suggest he was garnering a greater income than he was leading the court to believe. He will now have to provide a statement of means, including his bank and credit card payments, and bills.

Another man who owed €2,090 in maintenance, but has now reduced it to €765, told the court: “I live on €50 a week - that’s the breadline. That’s never been taken into account. I haven’t done a tap of work this year. I’ve even applied for jobs in Dublin. I couldn’t even collect the child last Friday because I had no way of getting out there.”

Again, he too was directed to the office upstairs to supply his statement of means.

“It’s awfully complicated. I’ll have to get a solicitor,” he said in frustration.

“It’s not complicated at all,” replied Judge Larkin. “It’s one of the most simple documents you will ever see.”

He continued, undeterred.

“I had no income at all up to April – nothing, not a euro. I would like to pay. It’s not that I don’t want to pay. I’d give the child whatever she wants.

“And yet you don’t know precisely where your daughter lives,” replied the judge.

Again came the retort: “I didn’t want to be there. Deep down I try to be an optimist and think things will change.”

“You’re in this situation because you haven’t dealt with the reality of what’s happening,” replied the judge, speaking in a courtroom where reality can be painful to witness.