Enhancing the Voice of the Child in Court Proceedings: Section 32 Reports

In this article which explores the pivotal role of Section 32 reports in child welfare within Irish Court proceedings, Sinead Fitzgerald, Partner and Sarah Biggin, Trainee Solicitor examine the benefits and challenges of these reports, alongside recent recommendations by Minister Helen McEntee aimed at enhancing the process and ensuring every child’s voice is heard.


The Children’s Referendum in 2012 brought significant changes to how children’s voices are heard in family and child law proceedings in Ireland. The referendum led to the enactment of the Children and Family Relationships Act 2015, which introduced substantial amendments to the Guardianship of Infants Act 1964 (“the 1964 Act”). Among the key changes was the introduction of Section 32 to the legislation which allows the Court to commission an independent report to better ascertain the views of children involved in proceedings.

Legislative Framework

Section 32 allows the Court to direct the preparation of an expert report on any question affecting the child’s welfare, taking into account the factors set out in Section 31 as to the best interests of the child. Such reports, known as Section 32 reports, are instrumental in ascertaining the child’s thoughts and feelings regarding the family relationship, structure and environment. The child meets with an independent assessor who is usually a qualified expert such as psychiatrist, social worker or teacher with at least five years of relevant experience.

After meeting with the child, the assessor then prepares a report which provides recommendations and crucial insights for the Judge into the child’s life and home environment. This approach ensures that the child’s voice is not only heard but also given substantial weight in legal proceedings.

Benefits and Challenges of Section 32 Reports

Section 32 reports have many benefits. They allow Judges to understand what family life may look like for a specific child, allowing a Judge to make more informed and child-centred decisions. They offer a chance for each family member to have their say and discuss issues with an expert in the area. Section 32 reports also uphold the child’s constitutionally protected right to be heard, as enshrined in Article 42A.

However, the process is not without its challenges. One significant issue is the cost associated with commissioning Section 32 reports, which, according to a report by the Child Law Clinic of UCC, can range from €700 to €5,000. As per the 1964 Act, the financial burden is placed on the parties to the proceedings, which can disadvantage families with limited resources. This financial barrier may prevent some children from having their voices adequately represented which is contrary to the principle of fair access to justice.

Another challenge is the lack of regulation concerning the qualifications of assessors and the absence of a complaint’s procedure for professionals. There is no standardized qualification requirement for experts, which can lead to inconsistencies in the quality of reports. There is also no complaint’s procedure should a parent be unhappy with the service provided by an independent assessor. Most notably, there is no minimum age for a child’s participation in the Section 32 process.  This raises questions about the appropriateness of involving very young children in the process.

Recent Developments and Recommendations

In June 2024, Minister Helen McEntee published a comprehensive review of the expert report process, along with several recommendations aimed at addressing the challenges. The key recommendations include:

  1. The production of guidelines on the commissioning, content, and use of expert reports.
  2. Securing public funding for the preparation of reports.
  3. Establishing a panel of qualified assessors with a management structure to oversee the report process.
  4. Creating a Children’s Court Advocate role to assist children in expressing their views in proceedings.
  5. Increasing pre-court family supports to better prepare families and children for the legal process.

These recommendations represent a significant step forward in promoting a more regulated and consistent approach to hearing the voice of the child in Ireland. By addressing the financial, procedural, and regulative issues associated with Section 32 reports, these reforms aim to ensure that the best interests of the child remain of paramount importance in legal proceedings.

In conclusion, the legislative changes following the 2012 Children’s Referendum have highlighted the importance of the child’s voice in legal proceedings. The recent review and recommendations by Minister McEntee are highly welcomed and highlight ongoing efforts to improve this process, ensuring that children’s rights are upheld and their voices are given significant weight in every case.

Minister McEntee’s review can be viewed here:-