The Family Law Acts place a legal obligation on parents to maintain their children. In cases where the family unit has broken down, these obligations continue to apply. Relevant maintenance payments can be arranged either directly between the parties themselves, or with the assistance of support from the Department of Justice and Equality such as the Family Mediation Service and the Legal Aid Board, or, most times unfortunately, ultimately through the courts. When any one of the parents applies for a one-parent family payment from the Department, a contribution towards the cost is sought from the other parent of any children of the relationship. The liability to maintain the family scheme is managed and administered by the Department. Its role is to determine on the basis of income information supplied whether the liable relative is in a position to contribute to the Department; to determine the amount of contribution due by the liable relative; to monitor and enforce payment of the contributions due; and to engage with both parties to ensure the requirements of the legislation are met.
As the Deputy is aware, the system is not really working the way intended in the best interests of both the State’s finances and the families we serve. I have had several discussions with stakeholders, experts and the ordinary people affected by the current regime. Having listened to the points raised, it seems clear that the current system is not working. There is much we could learn from what has been achieved in other jurisdictions. While many of the concerns relate to wider issues of family law, several points have also been raised with me specifically about the set of people I represent and look after within my Department. We have engaged with the Department of Justice and Equality. I do not believe, however, that we have the luxury of waiting for a year or two. We kind of know what needs to be done. I will carry out some research in the short to medium term. When it is completed, I will come back to the Deputy with some proposals.