Simon Harris’s response to Deputy Bernard Durkan offers no immediate hope to mothers who have lost custody of their children

Simon Harris T.D. Minister for Justice has responded to Bernard Durkan TD questions relating to unregulated, unqualified ’experts’ writing reports for the family law courts that accuse mothers who report child sex abuse of being guilty of parental alienation and recommending that custody of their children to be taken from them.

Minister Simon Harris writes:

“I refer to your correspondence in relation to Section 47 Expert reports and Parental Alienation.

As you may be aware, management of the courts, operational matters and logistical functions are the responsibility of the judiciary and Courts Service, which are independent in exercising their functions under the Courts Service Act 1998 and given the separation of powers in the Constitution. Therefore I am unable to comment on the specific matters raised in your correspondence.

Section 47 of the Family Law Act 1995 provides that the Circuit Court or High Court may order a report in writing on any question affecting the welfare of a party to family law proceedings or any other person to whom they relate.

Section 3 of the Guardianship of Infants Act 1964 provides that the best interests of the child shall be the paramount consideration for the court in any proceedings where guardianship, custody or upbringing of, or access to, a child is in question.

Section 32(1) of the 1964 Act provides that in such proceedings, the court may do either or both of the following:

(a) give directions for the purpose of procuring a written report from an expert on any question affecting the welfare of the child; or

(b) appoint an expert to determine and convey the child’s views.

The Guardianship of Infants Act 1964 (Child’s Views Expert) Regulations provide that the following may be appointed under section 32(1)(b) of the Act of 1964 to perform the functions of an expert: a psychiatrist who has practised child and adolescent psychiatry for a relevant period; a psychologist who has practised child and adolescent clinical psychology for a relevant period; a social care worker who has engaged in the practice of the profession of social care worker, as it relates to the provision of social care services to children, for a relevant period; a social worker who has engaged in the practice of the profession of social worker, as it relates to the provision of social work services to children, for a relevant period; a registered teacher who has taught children for a relevant period.

For the purpose of the Regulations a “relevant period” means a period of not less than 5 years within the 10 years immediately preceding the appointment.

Experts must be covered by professional indemnity insurance and are required to meet the minimum standards set out in the Regulations when carrying out their functions.

Assessors and experts in family law proceedings are formally appointed by the court itself, and answer to the presiding judge in a specific case. Any court orders or decisions arising in a family law proceeding, are a matter for the court. Where a party to family law proceedings is dissatisfied with the outcome of the proceedings, it is open to that party to appeal the decision.

While I cannot comment on individual cases, I am determined to overhaul the operation of the family justice system, to ensure we have a more efficient and user-friendly family court system that puts the family at the centre of its work. This is a key commitment in Justice Plan 2023.

On 16th November 2022, Minister McEntee published the first National Family Justice Strategy and secured Government approval for the Family Courts Bill 2022, which was published on 1st December 2022.

These are the mechanisms by which it is intended to reform how our family justice system operates to make it more supportive and protective when there are vulnerable parties.

The Strategy’s first goal is supporting children, so that their voices are heard, and their needs are at the centre of the system. This goal includes as a priority an action to examine the role of expert reports in the family law process and to make recommendations regarding their future application and function.

This action will consider the commissioning and availability of these reports, including their content and future use. Work has commenced and is being led by the Department of Justice, and is due to be completed in Q4 2023.

It is envisaged that the recommendations arising from the examination will contribute to the family justice system clearly hearing the voice of children, ensuring that they are supported in their own right and that their safety, security and best interests continue to be  paramount.

Additionally, in 2022 Minister McEntee also held a public consultation on the topic of parental alienation, which provided a valuable opportunity for stakeholders and citizens to express their views on this complex issue.

All views, opinions and experiences submitted as part of that consultation have been welcomed and all responses received are being carefully reviewed.

My Department also arranged for a separate strand of independent research on parental alienation to be carried out last year. I am pleased to say that a final report has been received by my Department and is now being reviewed.

It is expected that both the research and the public consultation will create a deeper understanding of the issue, and inform the Department’s consideration of policy and law in this area.

Work is ongoing to integrate these strands of work, and I expect to receive a report outlining the outcome of the research and consultation process and any resulting recommendations to arise from it in the coming weeks.”