The Law Society of Ireland has called for reforms to help families to deal with the burden of enforcing court orders on child-maintenance, access, and custody.
The recommendations, which include the establishment of a new State Child Maintenance Agency, were made at an appearance before the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice yesterday (25 October).
The hearing discussed the Society’s submission to the committee on the issue.
Processes ‘complex and lengthy’
Solicitor, Dr Geoffrey Shannon SC (member of the Law Society’s Family and Child Law Committee, pictured) said that “hardship, hostility, and humiliation” was the reality for many Irish families seeking access to justice at vulnerable times in their lives.
“The current processes involved in the enforcement of child-maintenance, access, and custody court orders can be complex, lengthy, and, in certain cases, can have a knock-on effect on other matters that can impact the children involved,” he stated.
Child-maintenance is the financial responsibility placed on both parents to maintain dependant children.
This can include accommodation, food, educational, medical, dental, and extra-curricular expenses.
Access and custody refers to visitation rights of both parents, and where the child is to reside.
Breaches of access and custody orders, and failure to comply with maintenance orders can currently be pursued through the courts. There are no fixed penalties in place for such breaches.
Further, the burden of recouping unpaid maintenance is on the parent, as no single State agency holds responsibility for this.
Call for guidelines on contributions
The Law Society’s recommendations are:
- Increase the use of the award of costs provision, in order to alleviate the financial burden on lone parents when seeking payment of maintenance owed, and to act as a penalty for the respondent party,
- Maximise the reliefs available under the Children and Family Relationship Act 2015, where there have been consistent breaches of access orders,
- Introduce guidelines to assist in determining appropriate maintenance contributions,
- Establish set penalties for breaching court orders relating to child-maintenance, access, and custody,
- Establish a State Child Maintenance Agency to assist in matters relating to child maintenance.
Dr Shannon said that unpaid maintenance to support a child’s upbringing could cause particular hardship for lone parents in receipt of social-welfare payments, which are reduced depending on the amount of maintenance obtained.
“This reduction remains in place even when there is a refusal or failure to pay maintenance,” he pointed out, adding that the result was a loss of income that had a direct impact on a parent’s ability to provide the basic needs of their child.
‘Maintain social-welfare level’
“The Law Society contends that the basic level of social welfare to which a lone parent is entitled to should be maintained at all times. Social welfare should not be reduced due to the refusal or failure of the non-resident parent to pay the requisite maintenance in order to ensure that the rights of the child – to be free from poverty – is maintained by the State,” Dr Shannon continued.
He said that the Society had previously welcomed the proposed establishment of a State Child Maintenance Agency.
“We believe that the cumulative effect of centralising these supports through one agency would be to minimise acrimony between the parties, to the ultimate benefit of the child or children involved,” Dr Shannon added.