Headline Findings from Roisin’s PhD

Thanks to the enthusiasm and interest of their Legal Editor, Derbhail McDonald, the Irish Independent newspaper ran a 2-page feature on Roisin’s PhD research this morning. Since then, We’ve had significant interest from other journalists, academics and those involved and experiencing the Irish family law system in accessing Roisin’s research.

Why is this research important?
Roisin spent 4 years in the circuit court, recording the details of family law cases throughout the country. Roisin recorded the details of nearly 1,100 cases and recorded these in a database that she designed with assistance from IT researchers. Roisin’s database is an accurate and rich model of the family law process and its outcomes. Anonymised information about litigants, their assets, circuits, judges, court sessions, orders and rulings are combined to enable Roisin to answer detailed questions about the likely outcomes for litigants depending on their gender, number of children, socio-economic status etc.

Are the results conclusive?
Yes. Roisin’s sample size is about 8% of the total number of family law cases in the circuit court during the period the research was carried out. She observed, and interviewed, over 60% of family law judges in the circuit courts. Roisin’s most emphatic findings (e.g. 99-100% of applicants …) have a percentage error of just under 1%. This is accurate enough to confidently accept the validity of her findings. Care was taken to ensure that cases were sampled in an unbiased manner but this does not imply that there were no cases in the >15,000 cases heard during the time Roisin’s research was conducted which contradict a finding of 100%. e.g. “100 pc of maintenance orders, both child and spousal maintenance, are made in favour of the wife” (taken from the Independent article here). What this means is that Roisin would expect there are less than approximately 150 cases in the country which contradict that finding during the period that the research was carried out, with a 95% confidence level. Anecdotal evidence that an exception exists does not invalidate the trends shown.

An Open Dialogue with the Judiciary
Additionally, Roisin organised an international family law conference involving Irish and Canadian judges in 2010 which assisted Roisin in conducting interviews with circuit judges. Her research doesn’t just consider the outcomes from Roisin’s perspective, she has obtained commentary and insights from the judiciary on the issues they believe affect the efficiency and outcomes of the family court.

Most of the headlines I’ve seen are about gender-biased outcomes. Was that the intent of the study?
Not at all. Roisin’s own experience of the family law courts was in the role of a primary-earner seeking a divorce. When she started her research journey, she didn’t have preconceptions about gender-bias within the courts system. Indeed, Roisin maintains that rather than fathers or mothers being the losers in our court systems, those who lose the most are children who are failed by a legal system with inherent injustices that often promote rather than resolve conflict.

Did Roisin really study over 1,000 cases?
This is the first reaction that many people have when Roisin describes her research. The answer is, unequivocally, yes. Roisin spent her IRC grant and her own funds traveling to each court and staying long enough to record the details of each case she incorporated into her study. One of the reasons she setup ARC was to raise more funds to continue her research. The case data entered into the database was based on objective observations detailed over many days spent in court. The case data was not derived interviews with litigants as such interviews may have inherent bias. As the team in ARC heard Roisin say many times, “somebody needs to do this”. Roisin was driven to conduct this research by her own experience as a litigant in the circuit court. She experienced at first hand, a system that she believed to be unnecessarilyy expensive, complex and unfriendly at a time when litigants are most vulnerable. Without detailed research the family law courts remain opaque, making it difficult to argue the benefits of much-needed reforms.

Where can I get a copy of Roisin’s PhD?
Roisin’s PhD will be made publicly available very soon. Until then, we’ve uploaded her headline findings to the Arc website here. Roisin will be discussing her research on Today with Sean O’Rourke on RTE Radio one tomorrow morning.