COURT applications for custody and access by unmarried and separated fathers have surged as men suffering from wage cuts and unemployment seek to protect their social welfare entitlements in the downturn.
Applications for custody, access and guardianship of children have all increased, but fewer couples are separating or divorcing as they cannot afford it.
The annual report of the Courts Service yesterday revealed that the number of applications for custody increased by 44pc last year.
Applications for access alone increased by 10pc whilst applications for both custody and access increased by 8pc and there was a 12pc rise in the number of unmarried fathers seeking guardianship.
Legal experts say the surge is explained, in part, by demands placed on fathers by state agencies who administer social welfare payments, including lone-parent allowances.
Instead of relying on a father's statement that they have access or custody of their children, social welfare staff -- including community welfare officers -- are seeking proof from the courts, the Irish Independent has learned.
But the increase in applications is also explained by the fact that more unmarried fathers are becoming aware of their entitlements to gain guardianship and other legal rights.
As unmarried fathers assert their rights, separation and divorce cases are on the decrease. Judicial separation applications decreased by 13pc last year; divorce applications declined by 9pc and nullity applications dropped by a quarter on 2009 figures.
Solicitor Marion Campbell, chair of the Family Lawyers Association, said the fall-off in applications for divorce or judicial separations was directly related to financial woes.
She said divorce or separation proceedings had been made more complicated as some "involve multiple properties bought at the height of Celtic Tiger Ireland and the vast majority are in negative equity".
"Banks and building societies won't transfer a property to one name as they require a joint income to service the mortgage and the bank or building society might not go along with that," Ms Campbell explained.
"Properties that would have been sold four or five years ago are no longer being sold. Generally, lawyers would have got the legal fees out of the sale of the property. Now, people can't afford to start it as they can't afford the legal costs," she added.