Tuesday, 24 March 2015
Children and Family Relationships Bill 2015: Second Stage
I welcome the Minister to the House. Obviously I welcome the Children and Family Relationships Bill, which is the most important update in family law in a generation. It reflects the diversity of modern Irish families and puts children at the heart of family law. I share the views of Senators Power and Naughton that it is unfortunate that much of the media comment and some of the comment in this Chamber are designed to confuse the issue before us - namely, legislation on children and family relationships - with the upcoming referendum on marriage equality.
I do not believe the legislation has been remotely rushed. It is a decade overdue. It has gone through significant consideration by both the Dáil and the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality. It has been subjected to much debate by this House in other statements on children and family law, the rights of children and so forth. It was also discussed during the course of the campaign for the children's rights referendum. Far from being rushed, I believe it to be overdue. If we are to talk about a tragedy, one of the tragedies has been forcing political parties into making hasty judgments in anticipation of political campaigns and elections, such as the tragedy of the eighth amendment, which was incredibly ill thought-out and which we spend much of our time today trying to unravel in the courts and in legislation.
Laws are often slow to catch up with changing social realities and values. This weekend The Irish Timespublished its family values survey, which showed that across the generations Irish society supports the protection of diverse family models beyond the nuclear family based on marriage. Nobody denies that marriage, as an institution, is still important in Irish society, and it enjoys constitutional protection. However, this important legislation removes the discrimination that families and children outside legal marriage experience on a daily basis. Society supports increased protection for people who find themselves in family situations that are not currently recognised in Irish law.
Thankfully, the Bill fills a legislative silence and addresses issues of guardianship, access and custody, the rights of children in family law proceedings, and the rights of cohabitants and civil partners. It is also important to emphasise that it addresses the rights of grandparents, who are often ignored and neglected in a child's life following a relationship breakdown.
I welcome the new forms of guardianship introduced by the Bill. Cohabitants, civil partners, step-parents, grandparents and other family members will now be able to apply for guardianship to recognise the important care they give to children in their lives. They can now enjoy legal protection for those relationships. Additionally, the Bill extends the right to apply to adopt a child to cohabiting couples and civil partners.
Despite much of the media comment, the people who will benefit most from this legislation are heterosexual couples who are either living together now or have had a relationship but are now living apart. Previously, it was only possible for a single applicant to adopt a child, but now applications can be made as a couple. It is an important step in removing discrimination, and recognises the value of non-marital relationships. For step-parent adoption, a lone parent who marries must adopt his or her own child if his or her new spouse wishes to adopt the child. We need to reform this unacceptable situation, and the Bill represents an opportunity to do this.
I commend the Minister on a child-focused Bill and welcome the provisions to protect the rights of the child to be heard. Under the Bill, the best interests of the child are a paramount consideration to the judge ruling on family law matters. While this was previously vague and uncertain, the Bill gives comprehensive guidance for the courts to decide on what would result in the best outcome for children who find themselves at the centre of conflict. This will provide much-needed guidance to the Judiciary and consistency in decision making. The Bill is in line with Article 3 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and makes Ireland a global leader by enshrining these principles in law.
The views and wishes of the child are to be taken into account when decisions are being made about day-to-day care and relationships with the family. In this regard, the court may appoint an expert to ascertain the views of the child and convey them to the court. This expert will be funded by the parties to a case. The Bill makes no mention of funding for parents who cannot bear this additional cost, and I ask the Minister to take this into consideration. The child has a right to be heard, and economic barriers cannot stand between the child and justice.
There is little detail on the qualifications and expertise of the expert representing the child. Regulations are required to ensure the highest quality of personnel so that people who are trained to work with children are called upon to represent them.
I welcome the establishment of a national register of donor-conceived persons. The right to know one's identity is important to many people, and establishing this register is in accordance with the Constitution and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. I applaud the work of Senators Power, van Turnhout and Healy Eames on the legislation they have introduced to establish the right of an adopted person to his or her identity.
The Children and Family Relationships Bill marks a great step forward in a number of areas. It modernises family law, it puts children at the centre of reform, it represents international best practice and it reflects modern family models.
I have two further observations. Evidence from the University of Limerick shows that many of the benefits to children attributed to family legal status were not related to legal status but to socioeconomic background and the educational attainments of their parents. Poverty matters, and that should be kept to the forefront when we are considering the rights of the child.
As a member of the Constitutional Convention, I have found that many families do not feel involved and wanted in today's Ireland. The Constitution defines the family as being based on the institution of marriage - or rather, it has been interpreted as such by the courts. Today's legislation, while welcome, does not change this. We must change the reality for many families who fall outside this definition. Organisations such as One Family have made presentations to the Constitutional Convention asking that the family be defined in the Constitution to include all families. In Ireland today we have many examples of unorthodox families that we would regard as families, including grandparents parenting children. Senator Sheahan mentioned an aunt bringing up two of her sister's children. It is time to get away from this archaic definition of the family and make it clear in a constitutional context that the family includes the many diverse arrangements of caring that we have in our society today.