Speaking this evening on the Government’s Child Care Amendment Bill Sinn Féin Children and Youth Affairs Spokesperson Kathleen Funchion TD said that the the principle intention of the Bill is positive and a move towards improving the protection powers and advocacy for vulnerable children but significant work was still needed to strengthen it.
Teachta Funchion said: "I welcome the progress made with the Child Care Amendment Bill 2019 and the Minister’s acknowledgement that the current system in provision of GALs is flawed and needs to be changed.
"Through this process of change, it is crucial that the best interests of the child is at the heart of any decision making affecting that child.
"The Guardian ad Litem system as it currently operates is not fit for purpose. It is completely unregulated; there is no oversight or accountability; and the role of the GAL is not defined in legislation. The appointment of GALs in court proceedings is at the discretion of the judge, meaning that access to a GAL is inconsistent across the State.
"A regulated system can operate on a much more cost effective basis as evidenced by similar services in other jurisdictions such as the Children’s Hearings Scotland (CHS).
"We need a better service for the most vulnerable children in our society while being able to quantify costs. An inconsistent and relatively ad hoc service is provided to our most vulnerable children for an incredibly high fee.
"I highlighted to Minister Zappone today that the Bill as currently drafted, children may or may not be appointed a Guardian ad Litem. Subsequently, the child’s Guardian ad Litem, may or may not be allowed to engage a solicitor. Therefore, legal representation in not a guaranteed right to the Guardian.
"It presents a situation where all parties, but the child who is at the centre of the case, and who the case is essentially about, is not guaranteed legal representation. The child out of all parties involved, is therefore the least represented.
"In cases where the parents choose not to engage in the Court process or are not capable of doing so, as is often the case, there may be no one to hold the Child and Family Agency to account in relation to ensuring that the Child's wishes are being taken into account.
"This is yet another reason as to why we believe Guardians should have the right to legal representation on behalf of the children they are advocating for.
"The Bill attempts to limit the Guardian’s ability to call witnesses and to cross-examine witnesses. This compromises their ability to advocate fully and most effectively for the child.
"In its current version we believe this Bill would have a retrograde impact and would, in fact, weaken advocacy and protection of the most vulnerable of children.
"I will be submitting amendments at a later stage and hope we can work together to improve and strengthen this much needed Bill."