Seanad debates

Thursday, 12 November 2009

12:00 pm

Photo of Cecilia KeaveneyCecilia Keaveney (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Cathaoirleach for accepting this Adjournment matter. I apologise in advance to the Minister of State, Deputy Mansergh, because sometimes I know exactly what answer I want and what point to make. Unfortunately, today I will not be as straightforward in what I want to say or hear.

I am vice-president of the directorate of youth and sport in the Council of Europe which recently engaged with some of the youth of Europe. They said they are looking for a convention on youth rights. I asked them why would they need such a convention when the UN Convention on Human Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which we will celebrate the 20th anniversary of on 20 November, are in place. They claimed they seem to be falling between the gaps when it comes to definitions of a "youth", a "minor" and an "adult" and to whom legal responsibility applies.

I raised this Adjournment matter to get a sense from the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform as to whether Ireland needs a convention on youth rights. Has any effort been made to get a definition of a "child" and an "adult"? Is it possible to have a black and white definition?

All Members recently received a leaflet from the Citizens Information Board which states there is no definition of a "child" or "young person". The age of majority is 18 years; in general one ceases to be a child on one's 18th birthday. One is legally a minor up to 18 and legally an adult after that. A child with a disability has the same rights and obligations as other children.

However, there are various age limits for different activities. One can vote at 18 years of age but must be 21 to stand for election to the national Parliament and the European Parliament and 35 to be a candidate in a presidential election. One can get a provisional driving licence at 17 years of age, go to work at 14 but there is a different category for those who are 16 years of age.

In regard to social welfare payments, one is an adult in one's own right at 16. However, under social welfare legislation, if a parent receives the lone parent payment, the recipient may continue to receive it until the child is 22 years if age if in full-time education. Under the grant scheme for higher education, one's parent's income can be means-tested until one reaches 23 years of age or 22 years of age, depending on whether one's parent receives the lone parent payment. I could pick out further examples from that one document we received.

The other aspect I want to draw attention to, as it comes under the ambit of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, is the degree of culpability in law for those under the age of seven, 12, 14, 16 and 18. I am interested to hear the response from the Department. When I first tabled this Adjournment matter the Department was anxious to have more concrete ideas in terms of where I was coming from and I hope it has been able to interpret my request to give me an answer. I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Mansergh, for remaining in the House to give me that answer.

Photo of Martin ManserghMartin Mansergh (Minister of State with special responsibility for the Arts, Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism; Minister of State with special responsibility for the Office of Public Works, Department of Finance; Tipperary South, Fianna Fail)
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The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform welcomes the opportunity presented by the Senator's initiative to debate this matter. It is clear that age limits or qualifications in many areas of modern day living can be very varied and perhaps we have not up to now given sufficient consideration to the rationale behind this. While these limits cover a wide range of issues across the economic, social and legal spectrum, the Minister is nevertheless of the view that the limits relate to the issues at hand rather than any specific labelling of a person as an adult or a child and are therefore well beyond the remit of any one Department. The Minister is further of the view that from this perspective, therefore, it is not clear that deciding on a uniform age limit that differentiates between children and adults would help improve the way the State regulates the range of issues that are subject to such age qualifications.

Section 2 of the Age of Majority Act 1985 reduced the age of majority from 21 to 18 and provides that a person under that age will reach majority on marriage. The "age of majority" means the age at which a person normally becomes an adult in law and represents the age at which a person acquires the capacity to exercise all the rights of an adult. Thus, it is incorrect to say there is no "single definition" as to when "a child is a child and an adult, an adult".

The 1985 Act gave effect to many of the recommendations in the Law Reform Commission Report of April 1983 relating to the age of majority, the age for marriage and some connected subjects.

All systems of law operate, as they must, on the basis of working definitions. The Statute Book contains many statutory provisions relating to the treatment of persons under 18. In particular, the Child Care Acts 1991 and 2001 provide a comprehensive statutory framework for the care and protection of children - minors. The imposition of limitations on the legal capacity of a minor is intended to protect the minor against his or her own inexperience and improvidence. Normally, a person who ceases to be a minor has full legal capacity and may act independently of a parent, a guardian or the court. However, while the age of majority is settled in law, other statutes make exceptional provision whereby persons under 18 can also act or be treated independently. For example: section 23 of the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act - a minor over 16 can give consent to surgical, medical and dental treatment; section 31 of the Family Law Act 1995 - persons aged under 18 years must obtain the permission of the Circuit Family Court of the High Court to get married; section 11 of the Guardianship of Infants Act 1964, as amended, provides that a reference to a child can include a person who is under 18 but also a person up to the age of 23 if he or she is in full-time education; under the Hague Convention on international child abduction, which provides for recovery of children in "tug of love" cases, children are classified as those under 16 years; Article 1 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1989, states that "a child means every human being below the age of eighteen years unless under the law applicable to the child, majority is attained earlier. Ireland ratified the convention in 1992; and on 16 October 2006, under the Children Act 2001, the age of criminal responsibility was effectively raised from seven to 12 years. Under the new provisions, no child under the age of 12 years can be charged with an offence. An exception is made for ten and 11 year-olds charged with very serious offences such as unlawful killing, a rape offence or aggravated sexual assault. In addition, the Director of Public Prosecutions must give consent for any child under the age of 14 years to be charged.

The age of consent for sexual intercourse was established as 17 years in the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1937 and re-enacted in the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2006. In the Second Interim Report of the Joint Committee on the Constitutional Amendment on Children, the majority of members were in favour of a reduction in that age to 16 years. The Minister expects to seek Government approval shortly to prepare legislation to give effect to the criminal law measures addressed in the report.

Life in the first decade of the 21st century is in so many ways a vastly different experience from earlier decades and the many life choices with which people are faced means that careful consideration has to be given to the age limits in which young people can participate in a wide range of activities. Regardless of this, the Minister is anxious to point out that any further consideration of the issues discussed today must take cognisance of the central role the State plays and will continue to play in the protection and interests of children and young people.

Photo of Cecilia KeaveneyCecilia Keaveney (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister for his response. I intend asking the line Minister to come back to the House to answer the first part of the matter, namely, whether he believes a convention for youth is needed. I appreciate the detailed answer but given the role I am in and all that is mentioned in the reply, I would like to hear the Minister's own views on whether a specific convention on youth is required.