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Rules for court-appointed guardians approved

Reforms of guardianship process aim to give children further protection and greater say

The child protection rapporteur says new legislation is overdue to address “geographical injustice” in the care of children. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

The Government has approved new regulations for court-appointed guardians, known as guardians ad litem.

Minister for Children and Youth Affairs Katherine Zappone brought a memorandum to Cabinet on Tuesday setting out major reform of guardianship laws, which were first introduced 25 years ago.

Under her proposals children will be given a voice in the guardianship process, minimum standards and qualifications will be set and a national guardian ad litem service will be established.

“After securing the support of her colleagues the Minister will now progress plans which will ensure that the rights, protections and views of the child will lie at the very centre of the guardianship process,” her spokesman said.

Guardians ad litem, often called gals, are appointed by judges “in the interests of justice”, to communicate the views of children, and their best interests, to the court under the Child Care Act 1991. But the legislation does not stipulate the conditions of their appointment and leaves it up to judges to decide whether they should be appointed. The profession is also unregulated, though the majority work with two bodies, Barnardos and the Independent Guardian Ad Litem Agency, both of which set standards for them.

The spokesman for the Government said the national guardian ad litem service would be established after a public procurement process. Fees and expenses for guardians will also be standardised.

It is understood there are currently about 65 guardians ad litem operating and providing a service in the State, at a cost of €15 million a year.

System reform

The issue is expected to be addressed before the Public Accounts Committee on Thursday when senior officials from the Department of Children and Youth Affairs as well as Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, appear before TDs and Senators.

The Department of Children and Youth Affairs produced a consultation document last year on policy to reform the guardian system, and sought submissions from interested bodies.

The State’s child protection rapporteur, Prof Geoffrey Shannon, earlier said the legislation is long overdue to address “geographical injustice” in the care of children.

The passing of the children’s referendum has meant the voice of the child should be heard in court cases that affect them, including child protection cases, and a failure to legislate for it has created a void, he said.

“A child in one District Court area may receive the facility of a guardian ad litem, while a child in another District Court may not, so it is incumbent on the legislature to bring certainty to the operation of the system.”

Prof Shannon said there is a higher onus on the State now to have a framework to “realise the aspirations in the constitutional referendum on the rights of the child” and the new legislation should be a priority.

“The time is long overdue for regulations in this area to define the role and function of the guardian, but to ensure the public are getting value for money in the expenditure on the service,” he said.

He also said it was important the child’s view was heard independently of other stakeholders: the State and parents, because their interests might not necessarily coincide.

“You’d hope the new framework would provide clarity as to the role of the guardian in both public and private law proceedings and I suppose, part of that is the independence of the guardian, that the guardian should be independent of the State and other interested parties.”

A study by the Child Care Law Reporting Project of 1,200 child protection cases in a three-year period, found a guardian was appointed in just over half of all cases, but there was a geographical divide. In Dublin, in 70 per cent of cases, gals were appointed, while in Cork the figure was 17 per cent and in Galway it was just over 13 per cent, though the sample was small.

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