Judges are ‘breaching human rights of fathers’

Irish judges are breaching human rights laws by forcing separated fathers on state benefits to make punishing child-maintenance payments, a parental rights advocacy group has claimed.

A chaotic ‘free-for-all’ in Ireland’s family courts has resulted in many fathers being forced below the poverty line while being denied proper access to their children, according to Eamonn Quinn of the Unmarried and Separated Parents of Ireland.

“The European Court of Human Rights has issued guidelines on what constitutes a minimum standard of living. A separated father on welfare is already at that level, yet an Irish judge will consistently force him to make exorbitant payments to the mother yet rarely, if ever, the other way round where he is the principal carer.

“If the mother has left the family home and is in desertion of the children, she is not made pay the same amount as a man.”

Responding to a four-year study of Ireland’s circuit courts, where most separation and divorce cases are heard, Mr Quinn said he was not surprised that it shows that judges have no set criteria to determine maintenance payments.

“It is a totally chaotic situation,” he said. “There is no consistency in the courts. One judge might order a father to pay maintenance as low as €5 a week while another may crucify him by taking €70 a week out of his dole money.

“My understanding is that judges are breaking the law when they force exorbitant payments. A father on state benefits is already living at a minimum standard. Being forced to pay huge maintenance will put him well below that. Judges can make these orders without fear of correction where the only course is to take a case to the High Court which, of course, is impossible for most men in that situation.”

The study, carried out by Roisín O’Shea and funded by the Irish Research Council, shows that the ‘standard access’ for married separated fathers is a few hours once or twice a week along with “a couple of hours” every fortnight.

It also reveals that, during the period reviewed, all spouse and child maintenance orders were made in favour of the wife. It also shows that child maintenance orders are frequently made against fathers living on state benefits, pushing them below the poverty line.

“At the moment it is a free-for-all in the courts,” said Mr Quinn.

“If a father is unable to pay maintenance, he will invariably be denied access to the child by the mother and the courts will do nothing about it to combat that kind of emotional and financial blackmail. Many good men are denied access to their child because they don’t have money to pay.

“However, if a father fails to pay maintenance the judge can send him to jail.”

The study also found that the courts take no account of a father’s ability to pay transport costs involved in gaining access to their children.

“Quite a lot of men were put below subsistence levels and are getting a raw deal in terms of access to their children,” said Dr O’Shea.

She will present her findings to Justice Minister Alan Shatter next week.

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