Timetabling child care legal cases ‘extremely important’

Insufficent sitting time leads to difficulties in listing final hearings - District Court president

Of 486 cases analysed in a report, parents in almost 27 per cent  were not legally represented.

Of 486 cases analysed in a report, parents in almost 27 per cent were not legally represented.

 

Ensuring the court’s timetable in child care cases is “attuned to that of the child” is “extremely important and deserves priority”, the president of the District Court has said.

Judge Rosemary Horgan highlighted difficulties with timetabling final hearings in childcare cases due to insufficient court sitting time and said this was complicated by coordinating the diaries of professionals involved in the process.

“Ensuring that the court’s timescale is attuned to that of the child and the parents’ timescale remains a challenging task for the court,” she said.

“It is extremely important and deserves priority.”

Speaking at the launch of the Second Interim Report of the Child Care Law Reporting Project, the judge also said the sample of cases included in the report suggest recurrent child care proceedings, where a child is removed from a parent for the same reasons that an older child was removed at an earlier time, may be a feature of cases in Ireland.

This may be for a variety of reasons including substance abuse, homelessness, mental health problems, domestic violence or absence of capacity, Judge Horgan said. She also said parents with complex, interconnected difficulties require high-quality sustained intervention and support.

“When these cases come to court it is vitally important that parents have the benefit of legal advice and representation as well as other appropriate services,” she said.

In almost 27 per cent of the 486 cases analysed in the report, parents were not legally represented. And of those who had lawyers, almost 80 per cent were from the Legal Aid Board.

It found one in four childcare cases involved a parent from an ethnic minority and 90 per cent of parents were not married. The report, which covered cases in 29 District Courts around the country before 35 judges, also found one in six parents had a cognitive or mental disability and one in three children had special needs.

Report author Dr Carol Coulter said parents may have been unrepresented because of a combination of factors including that at initial stages a parent may not have sought legal representation yet, or for certain applications they may not be involved.

“There would be some parents who don’t really engage in the process who, though told they are entitled to legal representation, may not actively go and seek it,” she said.

“As well, there may be parts of the country where the Legal Aid Board is very under-resourced where it is quite difficult to get representation.”

She also highlighted inconsistencies in the thresholds applied in the bringing and granting of child care applications in different parts of the country, including in one rural case where an emergency care order was granted on the basis of a mother’s cannabis use, with no evidence given of neglect, abuse or risk to health, development or welfare.

Dr Coulter said there needs to be a discussion in society in general and among professionals involved in child care proceedings about what constitutes a serious and avoidable risk to a child and what level of risk is inevitable and acceptable before a child is taken from his or her family.