My Blog

My blog is meant to inform but its primary purpose is not to be informative. It is about the law but it is not solely about the law but also about those places the law does not go. The law is the platform from which I dive. My blog is about my opinions but is not primarily about my opinions since I often temper these to the subject matter on hand, not to mention the imagined audience. Quite often when I open a subject which is related to the law for discussion, I find myself in a place I never meant to be, or to go, as if the subject takes on a life of its own. I write articles based on what I do for a living, and I am a family lawyer, but of course that is not all I am. I find that when I engage with a subject, and use writing to express my thoughts, that quite often the journey is more interesting than the end and that what I thought I was writing about is not what I wrote about at all. This seems to me to be a metaphor for life. I write, therefore, to throw some light into the dark, to increase my understanding and by extension hopefully, other people’s understanding of what often seems incomprehensible, to enliven the dull so my spirit does not sag and to throw some humour at what is often deeply sad so that I can, or maybe, dare I say hopefully, “we”, can gain perspective. I doubt I succeed but the effort is honest.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Grandparents – the force that binds.

Grandparents can be the glue that binds families together or they can be a divisive and destructive force.  No where does this apply more poignantly than where there is breakdown or strife in their children’s matrimonial or family relationship.  In my experience when grandparents take up the cudgels for their individual adult children or take sides in a family dispute, it never ends well for the grandparents particularly.  After the dust has settled the vast majority of parents have to rub together somehow for the sake of their children, but estranged spouses specifically if the estranged non-relative spouse is the custodial parent can retain animosity for a very long time towards their in laws now outlaws so to speak.
Just as tact and diplomacy is required in negotiating the parenting relationship from a grandparenting perspective so to is it required in the breakdown of such relationships.  Being supportive of your son or daughter in such situations is not something that should include alienating the other party to the point where you will not have contact with your grandchildren.  Reaching out to the grandchildren through the parent with whom they reside whether that be your adult child or not, is key to maintaining those vital relationships.   Of course, you should do so with your adult child’s full knowledge and consent. 
When a relationship breaks down, children can be forgotten in the conflict.  Of course, everyone pays lip service to the importance of the children but reality is somewhat different 9 times out of 10.  Parents argue in front of their children or in earshot of them.  Parents have inappropriate conversations about the other party with friends and relatives in the children’s presence or in earshot.  Parents deny access for no good reason or are in mean and spiteful to each other for no good reason.  They refuse to give one another passports to take the children on holidays and play brinkmanship up to the last minute all but ruining the holiday for all concerned.  They play hurtful games with each other not responding to texts about where they are taking the children on holidays, allowing the children to have phone contact and not advising of their plans on time or at all.  These are only some of the behaviours I can name – there many more.  Whether or not such parents have any conscious awareness that in seeking to hurt one another, they are also hurting and wounding their children is not entirely clear but the grandparents being a little more distant can see it clearly. Parents locked into this sort of dynamic often view the world through a black and white lense, you are either on their side or not.  The children sit on the sidelines watching getting upset and confused.  It is in this situation that the grandparents both paternal and maternal particularly if they have been close to their grandchildren, can play a vital emotionally supportive role for their grandchildren. 
Research here and abroad shows that grandparents of the noncustodial parent can often be sidelined post divorce/separation. It is important not to allow this to happy for the sake of the grandchildren as well as your own.  A willingness to help will go a long way.  Being a single parent is very difficult even if that is all you have ever been however, growing into that role when you have had another parent is very hard indeed so help with child care enabling parents to continue to work at a vulnerable time, taking children after school or collecting them from school, having them for some of the holidays so that a parent can get a break, would all be most welcome. Having an open door policy for the grandchildren themselves particularly if you live close by or are on the way home from school, would give the children much needed continuity in a changing environment and provide them with the unconditional consistent love they need.  Grandparents who develop early emotional bonds with grandchildren will find they last.  The middle generation is of vital importance in determining closeness.  When grandparents and their adult children are close then closeness with grandchildren comes naturally and easily.
One of the things that I have found most interesting in my reading on the role of grandparents and reflection on it, is that there is a whole language around this that I was not aware of.  The Grandmother Hypothesis for example is a fascinating theory that women often live a lengthy live post menopause because of the important nurturing role they play in grandchildren’s lives.  Another one is Intergenerational Solidarity which refers to the broad reasons why some grandparents manage to get close to their grandchildren and others do not – things such as geographical closeness, flexibility when it comes to technology and using it for communication, frequency of contact and grandparents function within the extended family.  It is important to note however, that caring for your grandchildren as a childminder does not determine closeness.  In this area, it is the relationship itself that determines the closeness rather than any function as such.  Another great phrase is “Ex-Kin Keeper Role”.  This refers to the non-relative custodial parent.  Grandparents can be a conciliatory and stabilising force if they have the wellbeing of their grandchildren to the fore and the wish to stay in contact with them.  Their role can be summed up in Distract and Reassure. 

I have long thought that in collaborative family law practise we should extend our role to provide a communication forum for grandparents with the separating parents and indeed extended family (ie aunts uncles etc) as to how they can help and be a bridge for future communication ensuring the transition for all the family to the benefit of the children.  

Monday, December 11, 2017

Homelessness and Relationship breakdown

I am all in favour of long term strategies to get to the root of a social problem.  On the other hand, when I see an immediate and pressing need, it seems to me that I have to respond to what is in front of me albeit not a long term or satisfactory response.  This pragmatic streak has always caused me to have theoretic difficulties with many of my more idealistic reforming friends who see me as shoring up a tired and unworkable system with this approach. Rationally, I know they are right but when an individual need presses itself upon you, are you supposed to turn away because it does not fit with long term strategies?  I am prepared to live with my inconsistencies!
Such a difficulty is presented with homelessness.  Focus Ireland say we have a broken housing system. Trying to get your head around that is very difficult especially when the complexities which give rise to the problem are so many and so intricate.  As the crisis seems to just get worse and worse, I get overcome with the enormity of it and a feeling of hopelessness.  I think a lot of people feel like this about national and international crises and we assuage our feelings of helplessness by throwing some money at the problem, particularly, around Christmas.  Don’t get me wrong, I am not at all adverse to helping people with a donation for a coffee or sandwich though I have heard people say “Oh they will just spend it on drink”.  So judgemental as if everyone homeless including the 3194 children were all drunks and drug addicts.  However, we cannot just sit on our hands wondering what we might do and then doing nothing really because it is all too big.  We cannot allow more people to die on the streets while our government sits idly by doing what seems to be way too little way too slowly and making inhumane comments like our problem is small compared to other countries.  When have we not seen ourselves as special?  We Irish might be idiotic in our self-regard but we have never seen ourselves as the same as everyone else.  We see ourselves as the most welcoming, the most-friendly, the best educated young population, the best place to raise children, the funniest, the most intelligent, the most literary, the most charitable and I could go on and on.  It must be because Leo Vradkar does not understand this about us that he made such an insensitive comment!  Yesterday, a Cork woman died on our streets who was 40 years old.  She was homeless and I do not know her story.  I do know that 40 is too young to die and the circumstances of her death might have been avoidable as they might have been for all the other people who have died on our streets in the last few years.  Since I heard this I am trying to find an angle for me to establish a foothold within this problem so that I can have a perspective on it which is not just about throwing money at the odd homeless person who crosses my path.
I work in the area of marital and relationship breakdown.  A large number of organisations working with homelessness, identify homelessness and family or relationship breakdown as connecting factors.  Few enough identify divorce/separation or breakdown as the only cause but as one of the contributing causes leading to homelessness. Post marital or relationship breakdown many people find themselves on the private rental market.    In Cork as in most other areas of the country the rental market is rapidly growing out of people’s financial reach and these are people who are working, let alone those who find themselves newly poor or those on welfare.  We can rant about greed and the lack of regulation of the private rental sector and we would probably be right on both counts but that does not solve the immediate difficulty for the person suddenly homeless.   Right now, it is true that the biggest increase in the homeless statistics are families as opposed to single adults with a rising number of children.  Of those families the majority are single parent led and of those the majority are led by women.  How did those women get into this situation?  Many by virtue of domestic violence.  At this time the powers that be do not count the women who are in refuges as homeless which has resulted in such women being discriminated against when it comes to housing. Abuse victims can find it hard to be put on the housing list and they can also have a difficulty showing they are homeless as they are sometimes joint owners of a home or renters of property.  That is something that we can rectify easily.  Family Lawyers can lobby to change this and to ensure that all national agencies involved with families compile statistics on domestic violence which will help us form realistic policies.  Traveller and migrant women face particular difficulties that place them in risk situations that can easily be identified and catered for once recognised as present.
There is little doubt that increased investment in social housing is vital but that takes time.  We also need provision of short term accommodation spaces to include provision for women only particularly women who have been subjected to domestic violence and rape.  We need a referendum which would put the right to housing in the Constitution thereby making sure that Governments cannot ignore this issue despite their term of office being only 4 years.
Research in Canada shows that post separation/divorce/breakdown 40% of women are in a worse economic situation than previously and are three times more likely to live in poverty.  Women leaving marriages often face challenges that are most common to them as women such as a broken career pattern, children living with them and their needs, care of elderly, unequal labour market particularly in the lower paid sector, refusal of landlords in Ireland to accept social welfare rental supplement and so on.  In addition, the trauma caused by relationship breakdown can bring on a mental crisis.
Settlements in marital breakdown or relationship breakdown do not have to virtually pro forma.   We can tailor them to your needs.  It is important that people understand that the family home does not have to be sold post separation or divorce.  There is no legal requirement to do so.  It is also not true that the wife gets to stay in the family home and the man must inevitably leave.  Courts will look at individual circumstances and needs which is why there are no hard and fast rules in the legislation governing these areas but Judges do have to be guided by case law (court hearings in higher courts) and what the family law statutes indicate the should take into account.  It is possible, however, to reach settlement agreements and happily there ae now a range of ways to achieve that.  Collaboration is one of them and it combines lawyers who have mediation skills, collaborative skills per se and lawyer skills in one package working in a team.  Mediation is another method which is a very adaptable style of working and can be reconfigured to suit individual family needs.  We also offer Managed Negotiation, lawyer assisted mediation and settlement talks as ways of coming to solutions without going to court.  A calm approach which takes advice at an early stage is key and keeps legal costs down.  The Legal Aid Board has many trained mediators and collaborators and people availing of their services should ask about them.  Private lawyers also offer this service but clearly at a cost, however, that cost is a lot less than going to court and the emotional cost is considerably less