I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time.".
The object of this Bill is to enable effect to be given to a proposed agreement with Britain and Northern Ireland for the reciprocal enforcement of maintenance orders, pending the accession of the new member states to the EEC Convention on Jurisdiction and the Enforcement of Judgements in Civil and Commercial Matters. That convention provides for the reciprocal recognition and enforcement throughout the EEC of civil and commercial judgments, including maintenance and affiliation orders, and for that purpose lays down rules of jurisdiction to be observed by the courts. The convention came into force between the six original member States of the EEC on 1st February, 1973. Negotiations for the accession of the new member States are at present proceeding but are not expected to be concluded before 1976.
It is intended that the agreement will follow closely the recognition and enforcement provisions of the EEC Convention and thus provide an opportunity to see how the convention will operate in practice between the State and Britain and Northern Ireland in relation to maintenance orders. For the same reason, the text of the Bill also follows these provisions of the convention, as far as practical and appropriate. For ease of reference, the Bill contains marginal references to the relevant Articles of the convention. In addition, an English translation of these Articles has been given in the appendix to the explanatory memorandum circulated with the Bill.
I am glad to say that the discussions on the proposed agreement are proceeding very satisfactorily. Five formal meetings have already been held at official level, and a further one is due to take place in July. In between meetings there has been a great deal of correspondence and informal discussions. I expect that the agreement will be finalised shortly after the July meeting and, if the Bill is passed by the Oireachtas before the adjournment, I anticipate that it would be possible to have the agreement signed during the recess. The actual enforcement arrangements will come into operation upon the making of a commencement order, provided for in section 2 of the Bill, and, on the British side, of an Order in Council applying their Maintenance Orders (Reciprocal Enforcement) Act, 1972, with the necessary adaptations, to orders made in the State.
At this point I should like to express my appreciation of the fresh initiative taken in this regard by the then Lord Chancellor, Lord Hailsham, when he wrote to me in March of last year after I became Minister. The goodwill manifested at that time by the Lord Chancellor, and indeed by those of his Cabinet colleagues who were concerned in this matter, has been continued by their successors. At official level also we have received most valuable co-operation and assistance throughout the negotiations.
The arrangements envisaged in the Bill for the recognition and enforcement of British and Northern Ireland maintenance orders in the State are briefly as follows. A request for enforcement, together with the necessary supporting documents, will be received by the Master of the High Court from the Secretary of State. It will be considered by the Master privately on the basis of the documents before him. He will then make an order for enforcement unless it appears to him from these documents, or from his own knowledge, that recognition and enforcement would be prohibited on one or other of the three grounds specified in section 9. These are that recognition and enforcement would be contrary to public policy; that, where the maintenance order was made in default of appearance, the defendant was not duly served with notice of the institution of the proceedings in sufficient time to enable him to arrange for his defence or that the order is irreconcilable with a judgement given in a dispute between the same parties in the State. As regards the public policy ground, the question may arise whether some British or Northern Ireland maintenance orders made in connection with divorce proceedings can be recognised and enforced here. This will be a matter for the courts to decide, having regard to the relevant provisions of the Constitution.
Where the Master makes an enforcement order, he will inform both parties. The notice to the debtor must contain a statement of his right of appeal, the restrictions on the taking of measures of execution against his property during the time allowed for appeal and the circumstances in which recognition and enforcement are prohibited. The order will then be forwarded to the District Court for enforcement against the maintenance debtor, as if it were an order made by that court in maintenance or affiliation proceedings in the State.
Provision is made for a right of appeal by the maintenance debtor to the High Court against the Master's decision granting enforcement. The appeal must be lodged within one month of receiving notice of the Master's decision. The decision of the High Court may be appealed to the Supreme Court, but only on a point of law. Where the Master refuses to make an enforcement order, the maintenance creditor has similar rights of appeal.
I think I should emphasise the various provisions made to safeguard the debtor's rights. First of all, he will already have been served with notice of the institution of the maintenance proceedings against him in Britain or Northern Ireland. Arrangements have been agreed to have these notices transmitted by the Secretary of State to the Master of the High Court for service on defendants living here. As indicated in section 3, the form of notice varies as between Northern Ireland, England and Wales and Scotland but in each case the defendant will have an adequate opportunity to make representations to the court or give evidence. No final maintenance order can be made against him unless he has been served with the notice and given sufficient time to defend the proceedings. Where a maintenance order is made, he may appeal in the ordinary way in the jurisdiction in which the order was made. Finally, where it is sought to enforce the order against him here, he has one month after notice of the enforcement order is served on him within which to appeal against the Master's order. During this time no measures of execution may be taken against his property other than any measures that may be ordered by a court with a view to protecting the interests of the creditor. Corresponding safeguards are being provided for defendants living in Britain or Northern Ireland where the proceedings are taken here.
In relation to the enforcement of maintenance orders under the Bill by the District Court, I should like to draw attention to two innovations, both of which are designed to improve the effectiveness of the enforcement machinery. First, all maintenance payments under orders being enforced under the Bill must be made to the local district court clerk for transmission to the maintenance creditor. Secondly, the district court clerk is being empowered to apply for the enforcement of the order where the maintenance creditor so requests in writing and the debtor has defaulted.
Up to now I have been speaking of the enforcement here of orders made in Britain or Northern Ireland. As regards the enforcement of our orders there, the Bill provides for conferring jurisdiction on courts in the State to hear and determine proceedings in desertion and affiliation cases where the defendant is residing in Britain or Northern Ireland. Before a maintenance order can be made, the court must be satisfied that the defendant was served with notice of the institution of the proceedings in sufficient time to enable him to defend them. The notice will be sent by the Master of the High Court to the Secretary of State for service on the defendant. Where a maintenance order is made, it will, at the request of the maintenance creditor, be transmitted by the Master to the appropriate jurisdiction for enforcement.
The Bill makes provision in relation to obtaining evidence required by our courts from a person residing in Britain or Northern Ireland in connection with maintenance or enforcement proceedings under the Bill. Provision is also made for taking evidence in the State for the purpose of maintenance or enforcement proceedings before British or Northern Ireland courts. These provisions will enable the courts concerned to have the evidence of persons who could not, or would not, travel to attend the court proceedings, but who would be prepared to give evidence at a local venue. Finally, the Bill provides, subject to various safeguards, for the admissibility in evidence of the various documents which must be submitted in connection with the recognition and enforcement of maintenance orders in the State, of evidence taken in Britain or Northern Ireland at the request of courts in the State and of statements contained in documents of a kind likely to be produced in maintenance proceedings.
I think it only right to point out that any reciprocal enforcement arrangements of the kind we are here dealing with are bound to have some practical limitations. Orders can be made and enforced only if the whereabouts of the husband or putative father are known. Furthermore, though the formalities are being kept to a minimum and though the Bill goes as far as can reasonably be expected in making it possible to admit documentary evidence on behalf of parties living in another jurisdiction, the outcome will not, in many cases, be as satisfactory as if the absent party had been present in court and subject to cross-examination. Notwithstanding such limitations, I am confident that the Bill will benefit a substantial number of deserted wives and unmarried mothers and as such will make an important contribution to alleviating some of the serious human problems of our society. I am sure it will be welcome by the various voluntary organisations who are working to such good effect in this field.
Before concluding, I should like to say that I am aware from the concern shown by my predecessor in relation to the problem with which this Bill seeks to deal, and from the views expressed by Deputies of all parties, that there will be general sympathy with its objectives. If the Bill can be dealt with by the Oireachtas before the summer recess, I would hope that the agreement could be signed and the arrangements for reciprocal enforcement brought into operation before the Dáil reassembles.
I commend the Bill to the House on this basis and ask that it be given a Second Reading.