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.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Child abuse allegation

There is no doubt that our increased focus on children, their needs, rights and our duties toward them are a positive development. It is a long way from the position we tended to have less than 50 years ago where we felt matters concerning children were private and best kept to the family.  We need, however, to be careful that we are not just paying lip service and there is very little real back up to our intentions, good though they may be.  We continue to place a heavy responsibility on organisations such as Tusla but we do not increase their funding to allow them to adequately deal with their new responsibilities and to secure the necessary retraining.   Nonetheless, we continue to have high expectations of what they can deliver.  We are also inclined, it seems to me, to implement reforms but not to examine in any depth the pros and cons of such reforms and their implementation.  In other words, we like to feel good about ourselves and once done we seldom want to hear or deal with the problems and are aghast when predictably things go wrong.  In my lifetime, I have seen this played out several times.
It is increasingly obvious that one of the downsides of our current approach to the welfare of children is the fall out from falsely levelled complaints to the child authorities.  Unfortunately, we only have anecdotal evidence to fall back on regarding this, however, every solicitor working in the area of family law can tell some tale about the disastrous impact of false allegations of child abuse. I have dealt with foster parents falsely accused whose livelihood was disastrously impacted as a result not to mention their reputation and standing.  Ireland is a small country and this type of scandal does not remain under wraps for long.  I have also dealt with family law cases which are held in camera (i.e., in private) and where such accusations were either levelled or implied in the course of the proceedings.   The outcome from such accusations is likely to be an impaired relationship for one parent with his/her children.  I don’t think it is unduly sexist, simply realistic, to say it is usually “he” in these situations.   It is an easy accusation to make and the stench it leaves sticks to the accused long after the authorities have parked the case.
One of the biggest difficulties for a parent accused of child abuse is that there is little he can do to defend himself as the first reaction of all concerned will be to remove him from contact with the alleged victim.  Of course, this is entirely understandable, but it does mean that the parent is, in fact, proving his innocence from a guilty position rather than the reverse.  One of the things that are often said is that whatever we have to do to protect children in these circumstances is ok but is that true if in protecting children we make it easier to make false accusations in situations where there is an advantage in doing so.  False claims of child abuse sway custody proceedings and affect relationships.  It is noticed and remarked on by practitioners how false allegations often correspond with visitation and custody disputes.  It has also been said that as family law becomes less contentious and more orientated towards peaceful resolutions, a bitter or angry party can resort to extreme behaviour to make themselves feel better and one such type of behaviour might be to level a false accusation.  I do not know if this is necessarily true, but we need to examine it.  Perhaps there is some need for the catharsis of a good old purge.  When a spouse is bitter and angry about the breakup and perceives that the other spouse has behaved badly and is getting away with it, they can find the reality that bad spousal behaviour has little impact on separations and divorce outcomes, very hard to take.  I think that people who are locked in a conflict situation with someone they formally loved can begin to see that former loved one through a distorted lens. Litigation in and of itself can provoke anger and the need for revenge.  I often hear that one party finds the other unrecognizable since the break-up was announced.  The hurt and confusion of a breakdown combined with the feeling that the other party is unrecognizable can and does give rise to a breakdown in trust and can then evolve into full-on paranoia.  Of course, some people make the accusation knowingly and do so to get rid of the other party entirely from their lives or to punish them for what they have done.  And then there are these others that I feel exist who are not directly culpable but rather delusional but delusional or not the consequences for the accused parent are such that we cannot just pass over this.
And so, what do we do about it?  We cannot let people be falsely accused, their lives blighted with no redress.   It’s astonishing how quiet the world is about this but then when you consider the opprobrium in which child abusers are held, it is perfectly understandable why those accused falsely would not mount campaigns around this. People love the saying “there is no smoke without fire”!  This issue is receiving little attention in Ireland but has come in for a lot of professional attention in the USA.  We need to consider sanctions to deter the perceived advantages of making a false allegation without preventing legitimate complaints being made.  That is not an easy balance but we cannot simply wash our hands of it as if false accusations were just collateral damage.  The wrongly accused person may be subject to exclusion by friends and family because of the allegation.  Employment and future career prospects may be impacted.  Allegations can send detrimental thoughts into the minds of children causing permanent damage to a child’s relationship with the accused.  Because of the need to protect the child as soon as an accusation is made, access will at the very least be supervised and the effect of this on a child will likely be to leave him or her with the impression that they are not safe with the accused parent.  False accusations make it harder for real victims and false accusations are never in a child’s interest, on the contrary, they are directed against the best interests of the child.
It is not beyond legal minds to define frivolous or vexatious complaints giving rise to a false accusation of child abuse in depth.  Such a definition would embrace the circumstances surrounding the frivolous or vexatious conduct so that good faith allegation would not be caught in the net.  If parents make allegations of child sexual abuse or other types of serious abuse when they are in fear of losing custody, time or control of their children to another qualified parent then the existence of severe penalties were they found to have done so knowingly would act as a deterrent.
In Family Law, the Judge is primarily charged with adjudicating the case with any dependent child’s best interests to the fore.  False allegations need to be reviewed under the principle of the recognition of the best interest of the child.  We should empower the court to sanction if it becomes clear in the course of a hearing and under the legal definitions that a false accusation has been made.  Those sanctions should reflect the seriousness of the matter as outlined above and need to send a very strong message.  The aim of the law should be to protect both the wrongly accused parent and the best interests of the child involved.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Spousal Support/Maintenance/Alimony.

One of the most controversial areas of family law is the issue of whether or not post-separation/divorce an ex-spouse who had been dependent or semi dependent should continue to be financially supported and if so to what extent, for a number of years or indefinitely, to a previous financial standard or close to it or to some other to be determined standard of a lesser nature. These topics are hotly debated by lawyers with each other and in front of Judges. Even in the case of spouses who both work it can arise if there is a big disparity in income. Not too surprisingly, the prospect of having to support an ex indefinitely, and sometimes even for a short period, is one that exercises the mind of the possible supporter to an excessive degree and can colour what might otherwise have been a fairly measured approach to the division of assets. Ex-spouses or partners in this position will wonder if continuing to work to the same exhausting degree as previously, is now worth it? 
Lawyers faced with this issue will often stress the difficulties for women in returning to work after a prolonged absence, loss of confidence in their abilities to navigate the workplace or in the value of their contribution, need to retrain, lack of technological know how etc. On the other side some lawyers will argue that a willingness to at least try and return to work would go a long way. Still others will suggest a retraining period or even a return part time plus some retraining and the remainder will just argue that a return to work is on the cards. 
As a long time, feminist, I tend to feel some sympathy with male resentment. I sometimes think that self-respect should determine a willingness to return to some form of paid employment. Many of the women involved are well-qualified and could at least try. Are these women lazy? Are they used to a particular lifestyle now? Are they unwilling to change?  Surely if you had spent a good deal of time, energy, money and graft in qualifying and climbing up a career ladder – you would want to get back to it asap? 
Before trying to answer these questions, I want to contextualize this debate. Very often in the course of a marriage, couples have divided up tasks in a way that makes financial and practical sense for their home lives. If one party earns more or has more career potential, then it can be practical or make financial sense for the other to downsize their own ambitions and focus their energy on family. The intention can often be that when the kids reach a certain age, the partner who back-seated his or her career at the altar of family life will return to work or College or will, at that time, be afforded an opportunity to focus on his/her own specific career opportunities. In reality, the partner who most often makes this sacrifice is female but that may change going forward. Sometimes, however, that conversation does not actually take place, it is more a silent understanding. Quite often, such understandings are often imagined as shared but are not shared at all and that discovery is only made when the marriage/partnership is in difficulties. This can lead to added layers of disappointment and anger. Even when the conversation is heard and remembered, there may have been life changes which would make such a well-intentioned agreement impossible e.g. marital breakdown, drop in salary, change of work location, sickness etc. If the relationship breaks down it is quite often the case that even if there was a will, there are insufficient funds to run two households and provide extra money for College or to remain at home and very often the parties are facing not only the ruins of their relationship but also the ruins of a lifestyle plan such as a return to College.  Looked at in a different way, it is worth remembering that men are very often enabled to shoot up their career ladder because women are prepared to take a back seat on their own career. It is also true however, that men can often work at unpalatable or dangerous jobs to ensure good pay because they are supporting families. A man’s ability to change careers is curtailed by his responsibilities or to take less paid work which might be more conducive to him. What is important here is that we do not make too many generalizations and that we see everything in its context.
In my experience, most women are prepared to contemplate a return to work but are hugely lacking in confidence that they can earn enough money or that anyone will want to employ them now. There are a few who genuinely have no intention of returning to work or who are ill and cannot contemplate return. Most women, who appear not to want to consider a return, are afraid that they will wind up with insufficient money post separation/divorce. Therefore in negotiations or in court, they present themselves as unwilling, incapable or unable to return to work so as to maximize the spousal financial support they might get. Lawyers are often hostage to their own prejudices in this situation. Their attitudes can be guessed at depending age and gender. Male lawyers will seldom encourage women, in a divorce case, to return to work. This may be a straight forward strategy based on the reality that a female client looking for support will get less if they are working and able to contribute something themselves.  While female lawyers are often caught in this trap too, they are likely to be working mothers themselves and aware of the issues involved and therefore, better able to have a conversation about a return to work. They are more likely to offer direct encouragement. Male lawyers often find it hard to position themselves in such a way with female clients to have such a conversation without coming across as badgering. Unfortunately, the Judiciary is not clear on this matter and while one Judge might take a strong view and raise the issue in court, another will not raise it. 
I take a view that with few exceptions, age or sickness, being most of them, that a separated woman is often better off returning to work as a part of her recovery from the marital breakdown and to give her a sense of financial independence. That said, everyone needs to fully appreciate the logistical difficulties of such a return. Quite often retraining is necessary or a phased return depending on the type of job and ongoing family responsibilities. Equally, a woman who was in a high- powered job or a job with considerable status in her 20s and is now 40 is not going to return at the same level or indeed any level and that may be humiliating for her. Accordingly, she may wish to pursue another career or different kind of work. Sometimes, the experience of being a stay at home Mum may have fundamentally affected her approach to life, values etc. and she may wish to pitch herself differently in the work force.
All of the above difficulties are conundrums that need to be discussed. In short, they are conversation pieces. Nothing will be resolved satisfactorily by either side making the other feel bad about life choices that worked for them as a couple and are now unsustainable.  Equally nothing will be served by either of them being led by well-meaning family, friends or professional people into bitterness. The end result of bitterness in the legal world is money and money will never compensate for lost dreams and hopes even if that were allowed by our system, which it is not. Ireland has a no-fault divorce system. The language of compensation is not appropriate in family law. If a party gave up a career to raise children or took less promotional opportunities because of family commitments, there will be no compensation for such sacrifice in a family court. However, the court will take some account of it when dividing the assets but only to the extent that money is there. All that will happen in family court is a careful balancing of the finances of you as a couple and as you currently stand financially and a division accordingly.

However, a back story, a look forwarded to where the parties might wish to get to in their future separateness can lead to conversations. Conversations can let light in and show ways forward to mutual benefit. Not always, because sometimes there just isn’t enough money no matter which way you spin things, but the conversation can break down bitterness and barriers which in turn leads to better parenting or communication. It is not much of a conversation when a person is being cross-examined in court or where negotiation is being conducted with each party closeted in their own area so that the people actually talking are the representatives and not the parties. Mediation, collaboration in all their myriad forms are the way forward in all family law dilemmas.