Access to children after relationship breakdown


The breakdown of a relationship is a difficult and traumatic process. There are many issues to be worked out such as financial support, the family home, guardianship, and the access and custody of children.

  • Access is the legal right of a child and an adult to have contact with one another when they no longer live together.
  • Custody is the day-to-day care and home life of a dependent child under the age of 18.
  • Guardianship is a person's legal responsibility to make decisions and perform duties regarding a child's upbringing.

Access arrangements for children following relationship breakdown

Where you and your ex-partner agree, it is possible to put shared access arrangements in place for your child. You can reach agreement about access arrangements together yourselves, or with the help of a mediator or a solicitor. Your agreement may include cooperation on practical day-to-day and special arrangements such as:

  • Meeting the child in person on agreed days and times
  • Meeting the child in person for a social event or special event, like a birthday
  • Communicating by phone or other electronic means
  • Having the child stay overnight either occasionally, on alternate weekends or during school holidays
  • Going on holidays with the child

The role of the courts

When the parents of a child separate and they cannot agree on access rights, the courts will decide. The welfare of the child will be the most important factor.

In general, the courts consider that it is very important for the welfare of a child that it should have a relationship with both of their parents, and they are very slow to deny access rights to the natural parent of a child.

Where the child's age and level of understanding are appropriate, the voice of the child can be taken into consideration as part of any court decisions.

Who can apply to the courts for access?

  • A parent of the child
  • Certain relatives of the child such as brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, and grandparents
  • A guardian of the child
  • Any other adult who the child lives with, or lived with previously

A father may apply for access whether or not he is a guardian. He can do this even if his name is not on the child's birth certificate, and even where his application for joint guardianship has been turned down.

If both guardianship and access are being applied for, then separate applications must be made, but both applications will be heard by the court at the same time.

The Courts Service has an 'Eligibility Checker' tool you can use to see whether you are eligible to apply for access.

How to apply for access

Most applications for guardianship, custody and access are made in the District Court. In some situations, relating to more complex cases, an application can be made in the Circuit Court or the High Court. Each court has its own rules on how to apply for a court order.

If you are making an application for access, you can apply to the District Court office in the area you or the respondent is working or living in.

The Courts Service explains the steps involved in making an application to a District Court office:

  1. Consider mediation and legal advice
  2. Decide where to make your application
  3. Download and complete paperwork. If you cannot download a form, you can request it from your local Court office.
  4. Serve the documents and provide proof of service. You must send a copy of the application to all parties.
  5. Lodge documents in the court office
  6. Attend court hearing

If either of you live or work in Dublin, your local office may be the Dublin District Court Family Law Office, also known as Dolphin House. The application process for people making an application in Dolphin House is different to the process for the rest of the country.

Preparing for court

You can find information to help you to prepare for attending a family law court. Family law cases are heard in camera. This means they are heard in private to protect the privacy of the family. It does not mean they are filmed or videoed.

It also can be helpful to know:

You have the right to appeal if you are not happy with the decision of the judge. If you wish to appeal the decision, you must file your appeal documents within the relevant timelines for each court. For instance, if you want to appeal a District Court decision or order, you must file your appeal documents within 14 days of the court hearing.

Enforcement order

The court can impose an enforcement order if you have been unreasonably denied the access the court granted you. This may include:

  • You getting compensatory or additional time with the child
  • Your expenses being reimbursed as a result of the refusal to allow the access
  • One or both of you attending parenting programmes, family counselling or receiving information on mediation

Legal advice

It is always advisable to get legal advice and representation, however, you are entitled to represent yourself. The Law Society has a directory of solicitors' firms which you can search for a solicitor in your area.

To enquire whether you are eligible for legal aid, contact your nearest law centre. Legal aid is generally not free and most recipients must pay a contribution towards costs. You can download an application form for Legal Services (pdf) or you can apply for civil legal aid or advice online. If you cannot afford to pay the contribution, you can apply to the Legal Aid Board to have it waived.

The Family Mediation Service can help couples who have decided to separate to negotiate their own terms of agreement, while addressing the needs and interests of all involved. The service is free. Read more about family mediation for separating couples.

FLAC (Free Legal Advice Centres) is an independent, voluntary organisation. A limited number of FLAC phone clinic appointments are offered in conjunction with Citizen Information Services around the country. These appointments are with a volunteer lawyer and are confidential and free of charge. Contact your nearest Citizens Information Centre for information on FLAC phone clinic appointments in your area. FLAC’s Information and Referral Line for basic legal information is open Monday to Friday from 9.30am-1pm. Read more about FLAC and its services.

FLAC has produced a series of basic leaflets on various areas of law which may be useful. These are available from your local Citizens Information Centre and from FLAC or can be downloaded from the FLAC website.

Further information and support

Treoir provides information on access and custody on its website.

One Family provides information and support and helpline for people parenting alone, sharing parenting and for couples separating.

Parentline is a free confidential helpline that offers parents support, information and guidance on all aspects of being a parent.

Courts Service

15-24 Phoenix Street North
Dublin 7

Tel: +353 (0)1 888 6000

The Legal Aid Board

Quay Street
V23 RD36

Tel: 066 947 1000
Locall: 0818 615 200

Free Legal Advice Centre

85/86 Upper Dorset Street
Dublin 1
D01 P9Y3

Opening Hours: Lines open Monday to Friday 9.30am – 1pm
Tel: +353 (0)1 906 1010

Family Mediation Service

4th Floor
Jervis House
Jervis Street
Dublin 1
D01 E3W9

Tel: +353 (0)1 874 7446

One Family

8 Coke Lane
Dublin 7

Tel: +353 (0)1 662 9212
Locall: 0818 66 22 12


28 North Great Georges Street
Dublin 1

Tel: +353 (01) 670 0120
Page edited: 17 January 2024