Parents face jail for refusing to pay child support
JUDGES will be permitted to jail men and women who refuse to pay child maintenance to their former spouses and partners under new laws published yesterday.
The move follows the collapse of Ireland's enforcement of court orders regime.
Last year, in a landmark case involving a Monaghan mother of two who could not afford to repay the arrears on her credit union loan, the High Court struck down part of Ireland's laws that allowed debtors, including those ordered to pay child maintenance, to be sent to jail for non-payment of a court-ordered debt.
Until the High Court judgment delivered in the McCann case in June 2009, a failure to pay maintenance after the making of a maintenance order could result in the maintenance debtor being sent to prison.
But after the McCann case, thousands of women experienced huge difficulties in getting their former partners to pay child maintenance.
Justice Minister Dermot Ahern said the amendment would decouple family law maintenance debt from civil debt in general.
"The proposed amendment to the law is based on the premise that a court has already deliberated in setting an appropriate level of maintenance and that if the debtor breaches that order without a significant change in his or her circumstances, that breach will constitute contempt of court and can be punished by imprisonment," he said.
Last night, the Free Legal Advice Centres (FLAC) welcomed the proposed changes to the law. It said it would bring the law in this area into line with the general regulation of debt collection.
The bill proposes a new process whereby defaulting maintenance debtors will be brought before a judge to explain their failure to pay.
FLAC said that callers to their information line and centres had noted that the gap in the legislation that currently exists was causing hardship.
Commenting on the changes Noeline Blackwell, director of the FLAC, said there would be a clear distinction made between those who cannot pay maintenance and those who actively choose not to when the new laws were enacted.
"Imprisonment will be a sanction for a judge to impose on those persons who are refusing to keep up maintenance payments," said Ms Blackwell. "On the other hand, those who are experiencing economic difficulties will get a chance to explain this."