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Lynn Ruane: Child maintenance reform would be good for children - and good for the country

Many one-parent families are living at risk of poverty and an overhaul of our child supports legislation is vital to protecting their future.

Lynn Ruane Independent Senator

THIS WEEK WE had more evidence that confirms the need to overhaul the legal framework around child maintenance.

One Family, which works to improve the lot of one-parent families, published a survey which showed that nearly half of these families are having to manage with financial support from the children’s other parent, and often have difficulty getting regular support even if such arrangements are in place.

I made a proposal last year to the Law Reform Commission to look into the creation and enforcement of child maintenance agreements between parents. To my knowledge the Law Reform Commission has not researched the issue by itself before, though it was covered somewhat in the Law Reform Commission Consultation Paper on the Family Courts 1994.

Unfortunately, child maintenance will not form part of the Law Reform’s work this time around, but I will continue in my efforts to find ways to pursue it. My central concern in reviewing the law here is that evidence shows that many one-parent families avoid, or are unsatisfied with the legal framework in place which aims to facilitate vindication of their rights and the enforcement of parental duties.

Resorting to the courts

This lack of realisation poses serious problems for this class of parents and their children, and, by extension, the common good.

Formal remedies for seeking maintenance agreements and their enforcement currently rest entirely upon those who are seeking the payment. The legal framework in which parents seek maintenance agreements and their enforcement are accessed through the family law courts.

Where an order for maintenance is granted but unfulfilled the solo parent must resort to
further court action, or the threat thereof, to remedy non-compliance. This can be achieved through the Civil Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act, 2011. The process in general requires legal advice, especially where complex issues arise such as were the non-custodial parent is not resident in the state. Limited legal aid may be provided in certain circumstances by the Legal Aid Board.

There are less formal arrangements in which parents can come to an agreement for example through mediation, with, for example, the Family Mediation Services. Such agreements must be formalised to be legally binding.

Where there is no agreement there are further services which are likely to cost the parties money if both are willing to come to some agreement. If no agreements are reached or there is unwillingness by a party to agree at all, then the courts are the last resort. In a way the courts are the first and last resort with binding child maintenance agreements/ orders.

Good for children, good for the country

Maintenance can provide for extra stability in a one-parent family which in turn can provide extensive benefits to the common good. In this sense the child may have better access to education and better quality of life which is inevitably good for the rest of the community. In analysis of Growing Up In Ireland data, Treoir has shown that around 80% of solo parents’ income is in the lowest income quintiles.

Considering many one-parent households are living at risk of poverty, there ought to be an imperative that legal entitlements which aim to fulfil the obligations of parents to their children are reasonably accessible and do not unjustifiably overburden one party more than the other.

In the same data analysis by Treoir, they show that 50% of solo parents received no financial assistance from the other parent. Regular payments of some amount were made by 39%, but just 14% made the required payment. More stark again is that 89% of the non-primary parents who reside outside of the state made no financial payment.

One Family has argued that there is a chasm in the provision of legal family law services in Ireland due to lack of a court advisory and services body which exists in other jurisdictions. They recommend that more state intervention is needed in respect of child maintenance.

The most vulnerable families

The current framework of realising maintenance agreements may be amenable to family break-ups and separations that proceed through the family courts – though the problem of default on maintenance remains. But it seems it may struggle to realise the rights of many solo parents and their children who tend to avoid the formal and informal legal structures in place to fulfil their entitlements and the rights of their child or children by having the other parent provide financial assistance in the form of child maintenance.

Parents play an essential and fundamental role in the common good by raising children. Solo parents in general have a more difficult task and tend to be most vulnerable. The parental duties, which the state has recognised, in the context of solo parents, provides for financial assistance in the form of maintenance. It seems these entitlements are not being availed of by a large number of people.

When this happens the family suffers as well as the state. A more accessible maintenance framework may provide solo parents and their children with more reasonable access to opportunities in life. Ultimately, there seems to be an under-fulfilment of entitlements and rights recognised by the state.

Lynn Ruane is an independent senator.

About the author:

Lynn Ruane  / Independent Senator

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