Thursday, 13 July 2023
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
Family Law Cases
We move to the second important item, tabled by Deputy Durkan, who wishes to discuss the recent UN special rapporteur's report that explicitly recommends states legislate to prohibit the use of parental alienation or related pseudo-concepts in family law cases. This is part of the Deputy's ongoing crusade, shall I say?
I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing me to present to the House on this issue yet again. It relates to the ongoing difficulty in family law cases concerning a concept that is not recognised or supported but is strongly contested, nationally and internationally, by various proponents and opponents. It concerns cases where mothers, and in some cases fathers, are forcibly separated from their children and allowed only under very special circumstances to speak to them over the telephone. In some cases, they have been separated for a number of years, with obvious consequential hardship and stress to the parent or parents and possibly creating serious mental health problems for the child.
It sounds unreal and few people would believe it happens, but it happens under cover of the in camerarule, where anything can happen and cannot be reported outside the court and Tusla cannot intervene because it is subject to the rule as well. It has been used extensively by Mr. Jim Sheehan, whom I have mentioned previously in the House, and a number of members of his cohort. It is a lucrative campaign in the sense that every report costs about €8,000, and that is supposed to be an expert report, although it has transpired that not everyone who makes these reports is an expert or has any competence in the area.
Without any more being said about that, this was taken up by a UN special rapporteur on human rights to the extent she made a recommendation the concept be legislated for, struck off the books and expunged completely from any form of shape or use, along with anything like it, in future family law cases. This will have the effect of at least having a level playing field when such cases are being discussed. It will mean the terrible burden and stress caused to many parents throughout the country will be lifted. It will also mean that when this State and other states legislate to eliminate its use, no other pseudo-concept will be able to be introduced under the radar to do the same job. It is not necessary in law and it is not accordance with the Constitution or the civil or human rights of individuals.
It is sad that in this country, in which we rightly boast about all the freedoms that are available through membership of the European Union and by virtue of living in a Republic, this practice continues. In the first instance, I ask that the legislation be seriously considered in the shortest possible time to address what is a scandal. It is a serious blot on our society that this is allowed to happen, albeit under the in camerarule.
I convey my apologies on behalf of my colleague the Minister for Justice, who cannot be here due to another commitment. I thank Deputy Durkan for raising this important matter and giving me the opportunity to provide clarity on some of the issues he raised. I acknowledge this is an issue on which he has campaigned.
As the Deputy will be aware, management of the courts, operational matters and logistical functions are the responsibility of the Judiciary and the Courts Service, which are independent in exercising their functions under the Courts Service Act 1998 and given the separation of powers in the Constitution. I am unable, therefore, to comment on any individual case or category of cases. It may interest the Deputy to know, however, that last year, the Department of Justice committed to undertaking both a public consultation and independent research on the topic of parental alienation as part of Justice Plan 2022. The findings of both were analysed and, arising from this, officials from the Department of Justice developed a policy paper on how to address the issue. The then acting Minister for Justice, Deputy Harris, brought both the finalised policy paper and the research report to the Government on 23 May last and noted his intention to publish both reports. Both the research report and the policy paper have since been published on the Department’s website.
Both documents recognise that parental alienation is a highly contested and divisive concept. While there is little concrete information on the exact extent of the accusations of parental alienation within the Irish courts, the research report found that, similar to in other courts internationally, there appears to be an increasing number of claims of parental alienation in family law proceedings. It appears to arise especially in custody and access disputes and in cases where allegations of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence feature.
Despite the highly contested nature of the concept, there was a consensus in the public consultation that the means to address parental alienation lie in improvements to the family courts and family justice system. The Department of Justice is leading on an ambitious programme of family justice reform, including the publication of the family justice strategy and the Family Courts Bill 2022. The strategy puts children at the centre of the system and emphasises, among other matters, the need to ensure they are listened to and heard and their views given due regard, in line with constitutional obligations and rights.
Reflecting this, the policy paper puts forward six recommendations to address the issue of parental alienation. They centre on progressing elements of family justice reform, building the system’s capacity to hear adequately the voice of children, and improving the knowledge, skills and experience of all those involved to make the best determinations on each case on its own merits. This is especially important in high-conflict cases, in which allegations of parental alienation can often arise. The report of the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women and Girls, its Causes and Consequences, Reem Alsalem, which considers the abuse of the term "parental alienation", and the deliberations of the United Nations Human Rights Council on the report in the coming months, will be fully considered when work in this area is advanced.
The family justice strategy is an ambitious and wide-reaching strategy that aims to achieve reform through the implementation of more than 50 actions across nine goals. It prioritises the needs and voice of the child, containing a number of actions that stress the importance of children and their needs in a reformed family justice system and the importance of their voices being heard and views considered in a meaningful way. These include an examination of the role of expert reports including sections 47 and 32 reports in the family law process, the commissioning and availability of these reports, their content and use, and the registration and other requirements of the various professionals providing these services.
I thank the Minister of State. I acknowledge that the Minister for Justice, and the formerly acting Minister for Justice, have done tremendous work in advancing the cause to which I referred.
The position is that in some cases, children are subjected to being screamed at and being told to shut up and sit down. Their mothers, too, are told to shut up and sit down or they might never see their children again. This has happened and is happening under the in camerarule. There is no such concept of parental alienation except in the minds and imagination of a number of people who have a vested interest in it. It was first discovered, as someone said to me recently, 100 years ago by a gentleman in the United States. We have progressed somewhat in those 100 years and this is one area in which we have to progress a little more.
To bring this story to a conclusion, we need to legislate separately and urgently to remove the concept from use altogether, and to ensure it cannot be used again in any other shape or form or under any pretence to bring it back or legislate for it in future.
There are situations at the moment where up to €500,000 has been requested as a means of bargaining, in order that the parent might be allowed to see the children who had been transported outside of the jurisdiction. This kind of thing cannot go on. I thought we had dealt with this many years ago when we talked about women's rights, equality and the legislation we refer to in this debate. I wish to bring to the attention of the House that this continues regardless. There is no intention on the part of the perpetrators to deviate one iota from what they have been doing and continue to do. The reason is, simply, that it is lucrative. I ask that the intervention be serious, relevant and early.
On behalf of Minister for Justice, Deputy Helen McEntee, I thank Deputy Durkan for raising this matter. I will take the specific point raised by Deputy Durkan back to the Minister.
As the Deputy will also be aware, the Minister, Deputy McEntee, published the first family justice strategy in November 2022, which sets out a vision for a family justice system of the future. This will be a system that focuses on the needs and rights of children, a system that assists their parents in making decisions that affect all of the family, and a system that makes it easier for vulnerable parents and families to get support and make informed decisions. The strategy is foundational in nature, recognising the many issues that currently exist within the system but outlining the steps needed to move towards a family justice system that is streamlined and user-friendly, and which supports and protects children and their families.
The family justice strategy is ambitious and wide reaching and aims to achieve reform through the implementation of more than 50 actions across nine goals. It prioritises the needs and voice of the child and contains a number of actions that stress the importance of children and their needs in a reformed family justice system so that their voices are heard and views considered.
An examination is under way on the role of expert reports, including section 47 and 32 reports in the family law process, the commissioning and availability of these reports, their use and content, and the registration and other requirements of the various professionals providing these services.
I will ask about the specific point raised by Deputy Durkan. This will form part of this examination.