“I had to miss the baby’s Christmas play to come in here,” the mother of four children under the age of 13 told Judge Conor Fottrell at the Dublin District Family Court this week as she sought once more to get thousands in unpaid maintenance payments from her former partner.
He had not turned up in court: “He knows I’m in court and I would miss the Christmas play,” the woman said, “He could at least have had the decency to come to court.”
Small and neatly dressed, she recounted how he had previously run up €10,000 arrears. A settlement made him subject of orders to pay €150 weekly maintenance, plus another €50 weekly to pay off arrears.
The man, who lives outside Dublin, has not made the payments as directed. The arrears are about €3,000 and he will not tell her his address, she said. “He knows how hard it is, he is no help.”
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She was “blown away” that he had given money in September to help with the children’s return to school.
In an email, the man apologised for not attending, saying he could not afford to come and that he has been out of work since early December, is “broke”, is applying for jobseeker’s payment, and had to take out a Christmas loan.
However, the woman does not believe him: “It’s just the constant battle,” she said, telling Judge Fottrell that the man was “100 per cent working” during times he had said he was not.
“He would not give me money for electricity bills, Christmas presents, I’ve had to get help from the Vincent de Paul. He’s an alcoholic, he drinks every night, I did not get a penny from him towards Christmas.”
An order to put an attachment on his earnings could not happen, said the judge, because he is not earning now: “I acknowledge how frustrating this is for you,” he sympathised.
“You have four kids, you’re coming here on a regular basis trying to get proper support for them, you have orders, they are not complied with and you’re back here looking to enforce them,” he went on.
The last time the case was before court, the man said he could not attend because he was working, but now he is saying he cannot come because he is not working, she complained. “Even if he showed some sort of interest,” she added.
She had to block contact with him because he was “very violent and abusing me when he was drinking”, she said, adding there were issues in the past with domestic violence.
Hearing her pleas, the judge issued a bench warrant to have the man appear in court to explain himself: “He just keeps getting away and slipping through the cracks. I have given him enough chances,” he said.
“Thanks, it might make him take it more seriously,” the woman replied. “I would love for it just to run smoothly.” “I’m sorry you missed your child’s play,” the judge told her as she was leaving.
In another case, a man was given until February to get bank statements and a statement of means for the past 12 months over a €325 monthly maintenance payment for his seven-year-old daughter.
The man said the child’s mother had taken her back to the mother’s native country, some distance from Ireland, and he had not seen his child for six years until both returned to Ireland about 18 months ago.
He wanted regular access to his daughter. He has not seen her for five months because the mother insists on being present, so he has no time with his child. The mother said that was not correct.
Ordering an independent child-welfare expert to meet separately with the mother, father and child and report back, the judge said both would have to share the €3,500 cost of the report.
The man said he was happy with that. “The welfare of my daughter is everything.” The woman’s lawyer also indicated that her client would pay her half of the report’s costs. On that basis, the judge adjourned matters.
In another case, a man said there were no records for payments he made for his two children because he had given his former partner cash. She has been living in emergency accommodation for several weeks.
Because of that, he had taken the kids, he said. The woman, he said, “is having a mental breakdown and I am doing the same thing as two years ago, applying for guardianship of the kids”.
The woman, who had initiated two applications concerning custody and safety, was not in court. Judge Fottrell struck out those applications over her non-appearance. The man’s application will be heard later.
Eight thousand maintenances cases came before the courts in 2019, according to the Courts Service, and the amounts can be substantial. In one recent Dublin case, €28,000 worth of arrears had built up.
In October, the Law Society of Ireland urged reforms on the Oireachtas, including set penalties for breaches of court orders, guidelines to govern the maintenance due and a new State agency to collect money owed.
Families face “hardship, hostility and humiliation” when they are at their most vulnerable, said Dr Geoffrey Shannon SC, a member of the Society’s Family and Child Law Committee.
No single State agency currently deals with unpaid maintenance, which causes particular hardship for lone parents on social welfare, Dr Shannon noted, since welfare is cut even when maintenance due is not paid.
In order to ensure the right of the child to be free from poverty, the Law Society said welfare payments should not be reduced where there was failure or refusal to pay maintenance.
In its report last month, the State Review Group on Child Maintenance, chaired by former Circuit Court Judge Catherine Murphy, said the child maintenance system needed immediate and radical reform.
Fifty per cent of parents get no help of any kind from an absent partner, while 36 per cent received a regular payment, but only 14 per cent receive the payments they need, according to the Growing Up in Ireland Survey 2019.
The 2020 Survey on Income and Living Conditions showed the consistent poverty rate for one-parent households was 21.6 per cent, compared to 8 per cent for the population in general, it noted.
Maintenance payments should be disregarded from welfare means testing and people should not have to seek maintenance to qualify for the One Parent Family Payment and Jobseeker’s Transition, the Murphy group said.
However, the group split over the need for a State maintenance agency, with four of the seven favouring one, but three arguing that cases should still be dealt with by the courts.