Rules governing ‘voice of the child’ experts in family court cases to be set

The Irish Times – Feb 3rd, 2017

New rules to regulate the appointment of experts to hear the voice of the child in private family law cases are to be introduced shortly, the Department of Justice has said.

The new regulations will provide “clarity” around the appointment of the experts, a spokesman for the department said.

Since January 2016, under the Children and Family Relationships Act, in cases such as custody, access, divorce and separation, courts are obliged to hear the voice of the child, provided he or she can express an opinion. The child can be heard either in person or through an expert.

But though the law has allowed for the appointment of such experts, the Government has not brought forward regulations to provide clarity on the appointment of such experts.

At present, in private family law cases, judges are either hearing children in their chambers or, where parents can afford to pay, are appointing experts to hear the voice of the child and report to the court.

Pilot scheme

The Legal Aid Board has also been running a pilot scheme to fund the appointment of experts, but only for people on very low incomes. And there have been problems finding experts willing to carry out the work for the price offered by the board. While experts have been charging up to €2,000, the board has been offering in the region of €350 per client.

In Dublin District Family Court last November, during a case on custody and access, Judge Gerald Furlong said the board’s scheme was “not working out”.

He said he was experiencing difficulty in getting reports under the scheme because “few people want to take them up for that price”. He said he would not wish to impose additional costs on parents.

“Hopefully, eventually there will be a panel I will refer to,” the judge said.

In the meantime, it is likely that family law cases involving the welfare of children will take longer, as judges will have no choice but to speak to children themselves before making any decisions on custody, access, guardianship and other matters affecting them.

A spokesman for the Department of Justice said the regulations were at a very advanced stage.

Qualifications

Separately, Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald has said there are no regulations that require experts appointed under Section 47 of the Guardianship of Infants Act to hold specific qualifications. These experts are often appointed to assess and report to the court on children and their families in contentious separation and divorce cases.

Responding to a Dáil question tabled by Clare Daly, the Minister said the people engaged in this process are usually qualified and practising psychologists or psychiatrists. And they are required to act in accordance with the standards and codes of conduct of their professional bodies.

She also said a right does not exist under the act to request a second opinion once one of these experts has issued a Section 47 report.

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