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Divorce applications hit record levels with ‘big money’ cases highest since Celtic Tiger

While the vast majority of applications were made in the Circuit Court, 48 “big money” divorce cases, dealing with assets worth more than €3m, were filed in the High Court.
Unhappy couple. Photo: stock

Unhappy couple. Photo: stock

Stock image

Stock image© PA

Shane PhelanIndependent.ie

Divorce applications hit record levels for the second year in succession in 2021, according to new data published by the Courts Service.

Some 5,856 divorce applications were filed last year, an 11pc increase on the previous record of 5,220 set in 2020.

While the vast majority of applications were made in the Circuit Court, 48 “big money” divorce cases, dealing with assets worth more than €3m, were filed in the High Court.

This figure is the highest since the Celtic Tiger years when a record 53 applications were made at High Court level in 2003. Back then the threshold for a High Court divorce case was just €1m.

All other divorce cases are dealt with by the Circuit Court.

The data is contained in the Court Service’s annual report for 2021, published today.

The massive rise in divorce applications is partly being attributed to a change in the law in December 2019 reducing the minimum time a husband and wife must live apart before either can seek a divorce to two years out of the previous three.

Prior to that, they had to be living apart for at least four of the previous five years.

Leading family law solicitor Keith Walsh said that while “big money” cases had doubled since 2019, they were still not quite back to Celtic Tiger levels.

“Typically, the assets involved in these cases would include company shareholdings, commercial property or very substantial property portfolios,” he said.

“An increasing source of wealth for Irish couples has been the issuing of shares in technology companies as part of the overall remuneration package.”

Mr Walsh expressed concern that the heads of the Family Courts Bill propose moving “big money” cases to the Circuit Court, saying this would further increase the pressure on that court when it is already dealing with a greatly increased volume of divorce cases.

Divorce was introduced in Ireland in 1997 and annual figures have tended to be low by European standards.

In the decade prior to 2020, divorce applications annually ranged between just 3,330 and 4,314. But last year was the second year in a row the 5,000 mark was breached.

Stock image

Stock image© PA

Women have traditionally been more likely to file for divorce than men and this trend continued last year, with 59.3pc of divorce applications being filed by female spouses, compared to 56.9pc in 2020.

Last year saw a 13.5pc drop in applications for judicial separations, which are court decrees that remove the obligation on spouses to cohabit.

Unlike in divorce, these can be applied for where a normal marital relationship has not existed for at least a year.

The decline was expected in light of the reduced waiting period for divorce.

Some 550 judicial separation applications were made in 2021 compared to 636 the previous year.

The overall level of domestic violence applications made in the courts saw little change last year, down marginally from 22,970 to 22,596.

“The impact that Covid had on families in 2021 is seen in the ongoing high volumes of domestic violence and divorce related applications, which we prioritised throughout the pandemic,” said Courts Service chief executive Angela Denning.

The report said that in the majority of District Court districts, waiting times for the hearings of these applications did not increase despite the higher volume and complexity of cases.

Cases were listed for hearing in most instances within four to eight weeks of the date of the initial application.

The report said emergency domestic violence applications were dealt with on the date of first application to the court.

Within domestic violence applications there were some changing trends, most notably a 16.5pc decrease in requests for barring orders, down from 3,577 in 2020 to 2987 in 2021.

Last year also saw a 7.5pc rise in applications for care orders for children.

These are orders sought by Tusla, the child and family agency, to have children taken into care where there is evidence they have been assaulted, ill-treated, neglected or sexually abused, or where a child’s health, development or welfare is likely to be neglected.

The report said there were 14,104 such applications last year, up from 13,203 in 2020.

A separate report by the Child Care Law Reporting Project earlier this week highlighted difficulties Tusla, the child and family agency, had in sourcing accommodation for children taken into care.

It detailed how there was a shortage of foster and residential placement places, leaving Tusla with no alternative but to place some children in ad hoc settings, supported by care staff.

These included a 14-year-old boy who had to stay in a hotel room, while another teenage boy, said to have complex needs, was living in a holiday home.

In multiple cases, it was agreed that a specialist placement was needed to keep a child safe and address specific needs and behavioural difficulties, but no such placement was available.

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