Tuesday, 24 March 2015
Children and Family Relationships Bill 2015: Second Stage
I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak on the Bill in Seanad Éireann today. It is without doubt the most important and groundbreaking reform of child and family law for a generation. Irish families are far more complex today than our legislation recognises and this Bill will modernise the law regarding the parental rights of children living in diverse family forms. The Bill recognises the reality of diverse family types and has the potential to impact positively on the lives of almost 500,000 children who are growing up in many different types of families in Ireland. That is nearly one in every two children in the country. Children should not be punished because of the circumstances of their birth or the marital status of their parents. That is why this Bill is so urgently needed.
As the Minister said in the opening part of her speech, the starting point in this Bill is the best interests of children. This is the golden thread running through the Bill. The proposed legislation is intended to put children at the heart of family law, provide legal clarity against various family types and address discrimination faced by children in non-marital families. It will make the best interests of the child paramount in decisions on guardianship, custody and access, and it addresses key issues relating to maintenance, adoption, parentage and assisted human reproduction. It is a shocking criticism of our political system that this Bill marks the first big reform of guardianship laws since the 1960s when just 3% of births were to unmarried mothers. Today, that figure is one third and growing every year.
Regrettably, one area where the Bill does not go far enough is where it concerns the rights of unmarried fathers. Treoir, the National Federation of Services for Unmarried Parents and their Children, has argued there is nothing in the Bill for unmarried fathers unless they have cohabited with the mother for the requisite time of 12 months, a minimum of three of which must be post-birth. Therefore, unmarried fathers will continue to have to resort to the courts if the mother does not agree to sign a statutory declaration for joint ownership witnessed by a peace commissioner or a commissioner for oaths.
Another issue raised by Treoir is a scenario where a statutory declaration for joint guardianship is signed and subsequently mislaid or destroyed, resulting in no evidence of the fact that the father has guardianship rights to his child. This can have dire consequences, such as a father losing contact with his child or not being able to consent to medical treatment for his child. The Bill needs to provide for the establishment of a guardianship register to keep a record of statutory declarations agreeing guardianship rights.
This is groundbreaking legislation. While I do not want to throw bouquets at the Minister, I am continually impressed by her stewardship of the ministries she has had, and this is a fantastic personal achievement for her. None the less, the Bill still fails to address the current discriminatory situation of unmarried fathers. It is not acceptable to treat them as second-class citizens.
Next year we are commemorating the 100th anniversary of the 1916 Rising by the patriots of our country who led us to independence after 800 years of practically being a colony. I would like to read a few words on this. The Proclamation of the Irish Republic, read outside the GPO by Pádraig Pearse during the course of the Rising, states: "The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and all of its parts, cherishing all of the children of the nation equally". At times, I have said we are not really a true republic because so many do not have equal rights. However, this Bill and the forthcoming Bill on marriage equality are bringing us closer to the aspiration and visions of the people who laid down their lives for our country in order that it would cherish all the citizens and all the children of the nation equally. I offer my congratulations to the Minister.