Major reforms to guardian system planned by Children's Minister

Currently, €15 million is spent on the guardian ad litem system annually

Major reforms to guardian system planned by Children's Minister

Katherine Zappone. Image: RollingNews.ie

Children and Youth Affairs Minister Katherine Zappone is looking to completely reform the current system of court appointed guardians, known as Guardian ad Litem.

The Minister is bringing proposals to amend the current legislation - the Child Care Act 1991 - following the Dail's Christmas recess.

The Minister believes the system currently implemented "does not set out the basic criteria for appointing guardians".

"It doesn’t specify the qualifications required for people to act as guardians", Minister Zappone said in a statement. "It doesn’t state the role, function or status of a guardian in child care proceedings."

New legislation

The proposed amendments look to set out clearly the role and function of a guardian ad litem in child care proceedings.

They will inform the court of the child’s views and advise the court of what, in their professional opinion, is in the best interests of the child.

It is understood that there are currently approximately 65 Guardians ad litem operating and providing a service in the state. While the majority of these have a social work background, there is no requirement for any particular qualification.

Under the new legislation, guardians will have to have a qualification in social work or psychology and at least five years’ post graduate experience of working in child welfare and child protection areas.

The kernel of the reform will be the establishment of a nationally organised, managed and delivered guardian ad litem service. This will be done by public procurement. Fees and expenses for guardians will be standardised.

Up to now, guardians ad litem could engage solicitors and barristers to help them carry out their work. Under the new legislation, the national service will have an in-house legal facility. If it is considered that legal representation is needed in particular circumstances then this will be provided from a panel of solicitors and barristers. 

Data from the 2015 Child Care Law Reporting Project shows that courts only appoint guardians in 53% of cases.  

The new legislation will provide for a presumption in favour of the appointment of  a guardian ad litem in all child care proceedings.

"All children in child care proceedings should have their voice heard"

Commenting ahead of the Cabinet meeting, Minister Zappone said "the existing system is not fit for purpose".

“I don’t believe it guarantees that the best interests of children and young people in care proceedings are always met. This is despite significant resources of approximately €15m a year being spent on the service.

"I am convinced that this money could be better spent. All children in child care proceedings should have their voice heard and their views represented. We need consistency and accountability in how we help children and I believe this reform will achieve that".