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Thursday 28 August 2014

'Rough justice' for divorced dads on benefits

Fathers claiming welfare are left on breadline to pay maintenance, study finds

Dearbhail McDonald and Katherine Donnelly

Published 18/03/2014 | 02:30

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JUDGES frequently make child maintenance orders against men on state benefits whose marriages have broken down – leaving many living below national insolvency guidelines.

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The first major survey of Ireland's Circuit Courts, where 98pc of judicial separation and divorce cases are heard, also reveals that the "standard access" for married dads to their children after separation is "a couple of hours" every second week – with a few hours once or twice during the week.

The four-year study, approved by the Department of Justice and funded by the Irish Research Council (IRC), has exposed a series of injustices in Ireland's overburdened family law system, with judges – interviewed for the first time – requesting training to deal with young children, parental conflict and help for huge caseloads that are leading to "intense pressure" to settle cases.

Judicial Separation and Divorce in the Circuit Court, a study of almost 1,100 cases including 187 anonymous family law case reports, reveals that the courts do not use any set criteria or formulae to determine maintenance payments.

The study, which has been seen by the Irish Independent, showed:

* 100pc of maintenance orders, both child and spousal maintenance, are made in favour of the wife.

* Child maintenance orders are frequently made against fathers in receipt of state benefits, placing many men below subsistence levels.

* Joint custody does not mean shared parenting, with children in more than nine out of 10 cases living with their mothers.

* In no cases were the views of any child heard directly by a judge.

* A significant number of divorce cases take eight years or more to be concluded.

Roisin O'Shea, the award-winning researcher who carried out the study, said that the courts were at risk of "setting men up to not be able to pay" their child maintenance because of the speed in which cases are heard and a failure by the justice system to examine ability to pay.

SUBSISTENCE

The courts also take no account of a father's ability to pay transport costs and providing for children during access hours.

"Quite a lot of men were put below subsistence levels and are getting a raw deal in terms of access to their children," said Ms O'Shea, whose research will be presented to Justice Minister Alan Shatter this week.

"It is an extremely traditional family that is presented in the courts. This traditional approach is taken by judges and the men themselves."

Ms O'Shea said that men leave the family home during a marital breakdown, presuming this is the best decision.

"Once they (men) are out of the family home, judges see that as the status quo.

"Most men are subsequently shocked when they realise the significance of that decision to leave the family home and its negative impact in respect of their financial outcomes".

More than one in five family law litigants present in court without any legal representation due to financial circumstances.

The increase in so-called lay litigants has resulted in poor outcomes for men and foreign nationals experiencing marital breakdown.

Judges interviewed for the research said that persistent breaches of court-ordered access to children was identified as a "chronic problem".

But judges assigned to family law cases do not believe prison is an appropriate sanction where the primary carer is the mother.

The research found that both mothers and fathers restrict access to or exclude the non-resident parent on the basis that frequent contact with that parent distresses them and the children in high conflict cases.

Women continue to lead the way in judicial separation and divorce.

"More than seven out of 10 judicial separation and divorce applications where there are dependant children, were initiated by mothers.

Irish Independent

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