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Review calls for child-maintenance reform
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08 Jan 2024 / family law Print

Replace current child-maintenance law – review

A review of the enforcement of child-maintenance orders has recommended the introduction of a set of guidelines for child maintenance.

The Review of the Enforcement of Child Maintenance Orders, published by the Department of Justice, describes Ireland as “an outlier” in not having such guidelines in place.

“While this allows for wide discretion to take into account the individual circumstances in each case, stakeholders noted that the current system is, or can be perceived as, inconsistent, and that it is very difficult for solicitors to advise a client on how much they will receive or pay,” it states.

It recommends, however, that, while judges should have regard to the guidelines, they should also retain their judicial discretion, and not be bound by them.

Act ‘difficult to understand’

The review, published by the Department of Justice, also calls for the repeal of the current Family Law (Maintenance of Spouses and Children) Act 1976, describing it as “difficult to understand due to technical language and complex phraseology”.

It says that the replacement legislation should be “easy to follow”, and written, as far as possible, in plain English.

It calls for the courts to be given more options and penalties to enforce child-maintenance orders, with some contributors to the review describing current powers as “highly inadequate in many cases”.

The recommendations include the power for the court to make a regular or lump-sum deduction order from a paying parent’s bank or other accounts, and the power to freeze money and assets held by a parent.

“The possibility of imposing suspended sentences for non-payment of child maintenance should be explored,” the report also states.

Mandatory mediation

The review also calls for the introduction of a child-maintenance calculator that would be available online to the public.

It also recommends that maintenance figures granted by court orders should be published, in order to increase transparency.

The report also backs mandatory mediation sessions for parents before an application can be made to the courts for maintenance.

It says that mediation services should be provided by the Legal Aid Board, but notes that this recommendation would require “further engagement” with the board before progressing.

The review also calls for talks with the Courts Service on setting up an online portal that would allow parents to submit breaches of maintenance orders, generating automatic warning emails, texts, and court listings. It notes that similar provisions are in place in countries such as Britain and Australia.

Revenue option

The report also outlines options for reforming the current system on attachment-of-earnings orders, which can be put in place when maintenance payments are missed.

“Attachment orders should be promoted as a method of payment of maintenance orders from the outset and should be automatically granted, without representation, if the paying parent defaults,” the report says.

It adds that the possibility of linking attachment orders to the paying parent’s PPSN should be examined further, with the Department of Social Protection.

The review says that the Courts Service could continue to manage such orders, or Revenue could collected and transfer the payments.

It also calls for the amendment of the 1976 act to allow for attachments on welfare payments and benefits.

This system could be managed by the Department of Social Protection or An Post.

The report notes that, while the courts can make an order to disclose bank accounts in family-law proceedings, the paying parent may have several accounts, and the account has to be known to the receiving parent to be included in the order.

As a result, the review recommends that the courts should have the power to make third-party discovery, and to order banks or other financial institutions to disclose account details of the parties.

Minister for Justice Helen McEntee said that she intended to start the process of implementing the recommendations “immediately”, by setting up an inter-departmental group to develop a set of child-maintenance guidelines.

“At a later point, I will seek Government approval for other recommendations that will require legislative change to ensure I do everything I can to ensure security and stability for children,” she added.

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