The Law Society of Ireland has advised the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice of several key reforms to alleviate the burden of enforcement of court orders related to child maintenance, access and custody on Irish families.
Member of the Law Society’s Family and Child Law Committee, Dr Geoffrey Shannon S.C. said, “Hardship, hostility and humiliation. This is 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.”
Child maintenance is the financial responsibility placed on both parents to maintain dependent children. This can include accommodation, food, educational, medical, dental and extracurricular 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.
At an appearance before the Committee yesterday, 25 October 2022, the Law Society made the following five recommendations:
- Increase the use of the award of costs provision to:
- alleviate the financial burden on lone parents when seeking payment of maintenance owed; and
- act as a penalty for the respondent party.
- Maximise the reliefs available under the Children and Family Relationship Act 2015where 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, “Unpaid maintenance to support a child’s upbringing can cause particular hardship for lone parents in receipt of social welfare payments, which will be reduced depending on the amount of maintenance obtained. This reduction remains in place even when there is a refusal or failure to pay maintenance. The harmful result is a loss of income which has a direct impact on a parent’s ability to provide the basic needs of their child.
“The best interests of the child must remain at the core of any court orders relating to their wellbeing. The 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.
“The Society has previously welcomed the proposed establishment of a State Child Maintenance Agency to assist in issues relating to child maintenance. 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.”
Director General of the Law Society, Mark Garrett said, “Through the work of our Family and Child Law Committee, the Law Society is cognisant of current issues and concerns regarding the enforcement of court orders relating to child maintenance, access and custody. We commend the committee for its work and the focus it has brought to the matter. Consultation to improve legal systems in the public interest is a cornerstone of democracy and we were pleased to have the opportunity to discuss our recent submission yesterday.”
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