An interim care order was extended in a rural town for an infant who had presented with several serious injuries over a year earlier. There were suspicions that the parents had caused them. Both parents had been appointed an advocate. The social worker told the court that the baby was fully recovered physically and that all the necessary supports were in place.
This case was one of four short child care cases heard among 68 criminal matters and 71 family matters heard on the same day in a rural town. The Child and Family Agency sought one care order and three extensions to interim care orders.
Questioning whether the case was ready for a full hearing, the judge noted that the mother and father had both denied that they had caused harm to their baby and had given their own version of events. As both parents were vulnerable, the situation would merit an independent assessment of events. “There is only one version of events in front of the court,” said the judge.
Judge: “Given the imbalance in the system and that we are dealing with vulnerable parents and a very young baby I am saying to the lawyers [for the parents] that, if you believe the version of the parents, give them a chance to obtain an independent view.”
Counsel for the GAL said that a section 47 direction could be considered in the circumstances given that the Legal Aid Board might only grant a small amount [of the cost of the assessment] or it could take a long time. The judge remarked that the CFA had a lot of financial resources to have their own reviews and that the same should apply to the parents.
Judge: “There must be equality on both sides. How are they [the parents] going to climb the mountain of expert opinion from both consultants? It is only fair to give a different opinion than the one from the State. I am not saying that the parents are angels but there has to be equilibrium there.”
Acknowledging that it was a unique case, the judge granted an extension to the interim care order.
Another case involved an application from a father to gain custody of his children who were in the care of the CFA as the mother had a very serious illness. The father failed to attend the hearing so the case was struck out. Given that the mother was so unwell, the judge advised that a fresh ex parte application could be brought to list the matter again if necessary.
A different case involved the CFA seeking a care order for two young children. The GAL supported the application. The parents and the mother’s legal representative were not present in court. Solicitor for the father told the court that he had not obtained instructions from his client who had attended some of the previous hearings. The court heard that the mother, who was a drug user, was not engaging with social workers and her whereabouts were unknown.
Acknowledging that the social worker may have tried to get in touch with the parents, the judge sought factual evidence that every effort had been made to engage with them. “We are dealing with a vulnerable woman and even more vulnerable kids” the judge added.
The judge remarked that the matter was being dealt with in the mother’s absence and that it was not appropriate to proceed without her being legally represented. There was some uncertainty regarding whether the solicitor for the father was also representing the mother. A different solicitor was called and shortly after made an appearance as the mother’s legal representative. “Do your best to get in touch with her and encourage her to engage with the system” directed the judge. “I can’t depend on TUSLA for it. We need a balance, that’s what you are there for,” the judge added.
The court heard that an order for costs was also sought.
Judge: We are dealing with children. Why do you raise the issue of costs? I am saying that I do not feel comfortable as a human being and as a judge. Their mother has issues with drugs and you honestly believe that I will give a full care order until they are 18 without representation?”
The CFA sought an order directing that one of the children could enrol in the same primary school than his/her sibling. “Anything that is in the best interests of the children I trust you and I do it,” said the judge, giving the direction and granting a 28 days extension to the interim care order.
Court’s workload raised
When the matter was listed next, a discussion took place regarding the suitability of the chosen date for some of the parties. Highlighting the pressure that the district court was under, the judge said that a note had been received from the main office stating that late applications could not be accommodated until existing judicial vacancies would be fulfilled.
“The reality is that the State needs more district court judges” said the judge adding that new legislation to cope with the workload of the district courts in Ireland should be enacted. Comparing the number of district court judges in the 1940s and in 2019, the judge said: “Do your maths and figure out the workload. That is the reality.”
In another case, the court granted an extension of an interim care order for a young child who had been in care since birth. The father was dead and the mother had a drug addiction. The CFA, who was seeking a care order, was reminded that the next few months the district court was under huge pressure with workload.
The Gardai then brought in a handcuffed prisoner. The court heard that the CFA was seeking an extension of an interim care order for his child. The mother, who was in her early twenties, was homeless and had a drug addiction. The father, who was in custody on serious charges, consented to the application. The court heard that the CFA would also seek a care order for this child. “At the moment, all I can do is my best,” said the judge granting the interim care order extension. The solicitor for the father told the court that his client would apply to become a legal guardian of the child.