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Question

434. Deputy Róisín Shortall asked the Minister for Justice and Equality his plans to establish a statutory child maintenance service in line with similar agencies in other states; his views on whether requiring parents to seek recourse through the courts to obtain child maintenance places an unnecessary financial burden on parents and creates additional work for the courts system; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [54528/18]

Answer

Minister for Justice and Equality (Deputy Charles Flanagan): The establishment in Ireland of an agency comparable to the child maintenance services in other states would require substantial changes to the legal framework for determining issues relating to child maintenance. The requirement of Article 34 of the Constitution that justice be administered in courts established by law by judges appointed in the manner provided by the Constitution is a matter that would have to be carefully considered.
Parents are not automatically required to seek recourse through the courts to obtain child maintenance. It is open to parents whose relationship has broken down to decide between themselves on maintenance arrangements for their children. If they experience difficulties in reaching agreement on maintenance arrangements, they can try to work out a maintenance agreement through mediation. The general objective of the Mediation Act 2017, which came into operation on 1 January 2018, is to promote mediation as a viable, effective and efficient alternative to court proceedings, including proceedings relating to maintenance of children, thereby reducing legal costs, speeding up the resolution of disputes and relieving the stress involved in court proceedings.
Parents may seek a determination from the courts in cases where there are issues arising from disagreements about the provision of maintenance for dependent children, or failure by persons with maintenance responsibilities for children to provide proper maintenance. Relevant legislation in this area includes section 11 of the Guardianship of Infants Act 1964, the Family Law (Maintenance of Spouses and Children) Act 1976, section 8 of the Family Law Act 1995, section 13 of the Family Law (Divorce) Act 1996 and section 45 of the Civil Partnership and Certain Rights and Obligations of Cohabitants Act 2010. The Children and Family Relationships Act 2015 provided for a number of improvements in the law relating to maintenance of children.
The law as it stands provides several mechanisms, including possible penalties, where a person fails to comply with court-ordered maintenance obligations. Section 10 of the Family Law (Maintenance of Spouses and Children) Act 1976 enables a maintenance creditor to apply to the court for an order that maintenance be paid by way of attachment of earnings, so the maintenance due is deducted directly from income. A person can apply for an attachment of earnings order when applying to court for a maintenance order, if he or she is concerned that maintenance will not be paid, or he or she can apply later if the maintenance is not paid.
The maintenance creditor may seek to recover sums owing through the courts by utilising the enforcement mechanisms available under section 8 of the Enforcement of Court Orders Act 1940 (as substituted by section 63 of the Civil Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2011). In addition, where the failure to pay maintenance is as a result of unwillingness, as distinct from inability, to pay, under section 9A of the Family Law (Maintenance of Spouses and Children) Act 1976, the District Court has the power to regard a failure by a parent to comply with a court order relating to maintenance as contempt of court and to deal with it accordingly, including by means of imprisonment.
While I have no plans at present for the establishment of a statutory child maintenance service, the Deputy will be no doubt aware that First 5 - A Whole-of-Government Strategy for Babies, Young Children and their Families 2019-2028, which was published in November 2018, includes a commitment that the Department of Justice and Equality will commence and progress a review of the effectiveness and accessibility of arrangements for recovery of maintenance payments by non-resident parents, including an examination of arrangements in other jurisdictions to ascertain the possibilities for making the maintenance recovery process easier for parents, improving the outcomes for children and reducing as far as possible the need for court proceedings for maintenance recovery. This review, which is set out under Strategic Action 3.1, is to be commenced within two years of the publication of the Strategy.
The Government is committed to significant reform of the courts, including the establishment of a family law court structure that is streamlined, more efficient, and less costly. My Department is working on a General Scheme of a Family Court Bill which will aim to streamline family law court processes, clarify jurisdictional issues and provide for a set of guiding principles to help ensure that the Family Court will operate in a user-friendly and efficient manner. The intention is to establish a dedicated Family Court within the existing court structures. The Family Court Bill will support the proposals in the Mediation Act 2017 by encouraging greater use of alternative dispute resolution to assist in more timely resolution of family law cases.