That Dáil Éireann shall take note of the Report of the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality entitled ‘Report on the Wards of Court’, copies of which were laid before Dáil Éireann on 22nd February, 2018.
I would like at the outset to thank the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, and other colleagues who have made the effort to attend here this afternoon to discuss the committee's report on the wards of court, which our committee published last year.
As I stated in my preface to the report, the wards of court system has played a vitally important role in allowing the courts to make decisions regarding the protection of persons and their property when they are unable to look after their own affairs. As of 2015, there were in the region of 2,700 wards of court, with funds valued at over €1 billion. Wards and their families rely heavily on the wards of court system and the expertise within the Courts Service to invest these funds wisely.
During the financial crisis, decisions taken by Courts Service managers led to a significant downturn in the value of the funds of a not insignificant number of wards of court. We were advised that some lost their entire funds and were left to depend on social welfare payments. In examining this issue, the Committee on Justice and Equality set out to understand how the loss of funds had transpired - funds that are vital to maintain the accommodation, care and quality of life needs of some of the most vulnerable people in our society - and to make recommendations as to how, insofar as possible, the situation might be remedied.
In October 2017, the committee engaged with the Justice for Wards group, representatives of the Courts Service and officials from the Department of Justice and Equality. The hearing gave rise to highly conflicting evidence regarding the effective management of the funds of wards of court. Having considered the evidence presented, the committee was and remains strongly of the view that the cases identified by the Justice for Wards group where funds have been significantly depleted should be subject to a comprehensive independent audit that would engage with the representative family members of those affected. Equally, a more involved relationship between parents and guardians and the Courts Service is required.
The committee is of the view that an independent review of the Courts Service's disposition towards and engagement with parents and guardians of wards should be undertaken. Representatives of wards of court recounted their experiences, speaking of an invisible but real wall around the Courts Service and the Office of the General Solicitor for Minors and Wards of Court. Their experience was that there was no accountability or transparency and that they were most often met by silence.
There is nothing in the mission and functions of the Courts Service to suggest this entity is geared towards managing, let alone responsibly managing, an investment portfolio valued at more than €1 billion. In the experience of the aggrieved families, it has never demonstrated empathy towards their and their loved ones' situation. Its functions are to manage the courts, to provide support services for judges, to provide information on the courts system to the public, to provide, manage and maintain court buildings and to provide facilities for users of the courts. There is nothing there to give comfort to or assuage the fears of those who have been grievously ill-served by the wardship system.
The withholding of information, including account details, has rightly vexed these families. The committee recommends that in cases where the funds for a ward of court are depleted, the remaining portion of the funds should be disregarded for assessment of medical card entitlement and other State benefits. Contingency plans for essential needs such as healthcare and accommodation should be set in train for individuals who are identified as being particularly at risk. Although the committee commends the extensive work undertaken in 2018 to advance the implementation of a decision support service, as introduced by the Assisted Decision-Making (Capacity) Act 2015, we continue to urge the Government to provide the resources necessary to ensure the decision support service is fully operational as soon as possible. That translates into now, next week or next month but very definitely not next year or by the end of 2020. In light of the projected further three years to having existing wards transferred to the new decision support service and the abolition of the wards of court system, such a timeframe would be wholly unacceptable to the cohort of largely aged and ageing family members who very understandably are anxious over the certainty of their loved ones' care and future.
Finally, the committee, subject to the view of the Attorney General that it is legally and constitutionally permissible, recommends that the Comptroller and Auditor General (Amendment) Act 1993 be amended in order that the investment funds for wards of court can be audited by the Comptroller and Auditor General.
In conclusion, I wish to express my sincere gratitude to those who contributed to the preparation of this report: the witnesses who attended our public hearings, particularly the representatives of Justice for Wards, ably led by Mary Farrell who, along with others, is in the Visitors Gallery; the members of the joint committee who worked with me on the hearings, discussion on the report and the adoption of the recommendations; and the staff of the committee secretariat and the Oireachtas Library and Research Service. I urge the Minister for Justice and Equality and his Government colleagues to give the report their detailed consideration and to provide with due haste a timeframe for the implementation of the recommendations therein.