It’s 20 years since Ireland voted for divorce. An Irish Times series, Divorced Ireland, explores the effects of that vote on Irish life, then and since.
Every day in Phoenix House in Dublin’s Smithfield, couples wishing to divorce collect at 10am in the lobby. Some have legal representatives, others do not. They wait, some well into the afternoon, for their cases to be called in one of the three courtrooms in the building. They are seen by Circuit Court judges; divorce and judicial separation are applied for at Circuit Court level, although occasionally high net worth individuals go directly to the High Court.
A couple may be legally divorced once they have lived apart for four years. In Ireland, a husband or wife does not need to prove, for example, adultery or cruelty. It is a “no fault” system, but people still try to air their partners’ perceived faults in court.
Shortly after 10am, the judge runs through a list of the cases, prioritising short matters and putting longer cases to the end of the list. Then the first case is called. Spectators cannot attend, although since January 2014, journalists may report on proceedings with strict limitations to protect anonymity. Barristers and solicitors are less formally dressed at family court and judges do not wear wigs and gowns.
Each set of divorce proceedings fits somewhere on a spectrum between civility and acrimony and each couple’s experience of the courts depends on the choices they make about their approach. Divorce cases can take less than five minutes or more than five years. In one courtroom earlier this year, a judge finalised three divorces and two judicial separations in 15 minutes. Another case was in its fourth year.
Not all divorces are fraught, particularly among a certain age group, often called the “silver splitters”. They have often both realised that they can no longer stay together and come to court with agreements in writing. Younger couples, with all the complications of maintenance, custody and access to children, may also arrive in court with an agreement.