We were all glad to see the end of 2020 and hoped that 2021 would be better, although three weeks in it does not seem to be going according to our plans! 2020 brought so much change, working from home, home schooling, no travel and then the introduction of Zoom into our lives.
In the area of family law and law in general change came too. I recall listening to the March 12th announcement by then then Taoiseach Leo Varadkar from the USA announcing the closing of the schools in a Court consultation room, with both my Counsel and Client and I all watching intently on a mobile phone. The Circuit Court Judge advised us that she was reluctant to commencing hearing the case as she did not know if the Courts would be sitting the following day to complete the hearing! I recall leaving the Courthouse that afternoon and not knowing when I would be back in the building and not know what lay ahead of us.
It is now interesting to look back the variety and timing of the queries raised by clients in those early days of lockdown. All work was done over the phone, there was no meeting clients. In the initial period of March / April, the queries focused on the immediate issues of access, maintenance, how to deal with planned Court hearings that were suddenly cancelled. Welcome guidance came from the President of the District Court, the Family Law Committee of the Law Society and on how to continue access visits, and the ability of parents to travel outside the travel limits so that they could see their children. At the same time parents, particularly those who lived with elderly parents were concerned as to the risks involved and both sides often stated that the other parent was either too cautious, or not cautious enough.
Life moved on and thankfully Court hearings commenced again in May. Family law cases were the first cases to be heard in the South Eastern Circuit, there is a natural social distancing in family law cases between the parties!. Consultations with Counsel and clients prior to hearing took place with what’s app video calls. Remote hearings have also commenced which has it’s ups and downs. The ups being the time saved on travel, the down being the technology and the fact that not every case is suitable for a remote hearing – it is very hard to read a witnesses’ and Judge’s body language in a remote hearing.
Then the calls started coming, from parties in relationships who found the lockdown exceedingly difficult and the strain it put on already fragile relationships. Couples found that in pre Covid days the ability to have a “break” from each other and the children, by attending work, gym etc enabled them to continue in the relationship. However now, being at home 24 hours a day made them make decisions on how they wished to moved forward.
The role of a family law solicitor is not to tell a client if their relationship has ended, but to tell them the options available to them if they decide that the relationship is over. Many clients who attend my office have not yet made that decision but want to know what road they are facing if the relationship is ended.
Life settled into a new routine and now in January 2021 those calls are coming again. The first two weeks of January are always a busy week for family lawyers, the media have christened it “divorce days”. People have new year’s resolutions, many couples who make the decision to separate will leave it until after Christmas especially if there are children. The same concerns that clients had pre Covid are still there and the family law advice is still the same.
The concept of “living apart” as defined in the divorce legislation and subsequent Court precedents recognises the concept of “living apart” in the same household. The time period for judicial separation and divorce does not start when the parties move into separate accommodation. It is necessary to explore in each consultation when the client formed the intention that the marriage was over, and whether they were living like lodgers in the same building.
Reduced Time Period for Divorce
The reduced time period of living apart of two years since December 2019 to apply for a divorce opens the possibility of bring family law disputes to a resolution sooner rather than later. Previously the 4 year period meant that clients could not close the chapter on their marriage until the divorce was granted. In my experience completing all litigation brings relief and peace of mind to clients.
We are only three weeks into 2021 and the Courts are closed until early February, the calls are still coming, although most consultations are now via zoom but these suits both clients and the solicitor. A trend I have noticed is that a lot of the new clients are from outside the traditional area of South Tipperary.
What to do next?
If you are at a crossroads and not sure in which direction to turn and need advice on any family law matter, do not hesitate to contact Máire McMahon at 052 7441244 or via or website www.dtryan.ie