I welcome the publication of this Bill, exactly four years since the general election. With 172 sections, this is one of the most complex Bills to come before the House in that time. It has implications and consequences for several substantial high-profile Acts of the Oireachtas, including the Guardianship of Infants Act 1964, the Succession Act 1965, the Family Law (Maintenance of Spouses and Children Act) 1976, the Status of Children Act 1987, the Adoption Act 2010 and the Civil Partnership and Certain Rights and Obligations of Cohabitants Act 2010. It can be asked why these Acts were so high profile and significant. It was because they impacted directly on the lives of hundreds of thousands of individuals and families in the State.
This Bill will join the catalogue of landmark legislation in this area. Like others, I am proud that a Fine Gael Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, is pursuing the Bill. I congratulate her predecessor, Deputy Alan Shatter, on introducing and leading this Bill in the initial stages as well. Although the statement is sometimes disputed, Fine Gael is a party of the progressive centre. We believe in equality, fairness, upholding the law and vindicating rights. The Bill seeks to emulate all of these aims.
The Bill is made up of 172 sections. We should keep in mind the recent past and the institutional State-sanctioned inequality and unfairness that existed in our country. In recent times we have seen numerous reports and apologies, and rightly so, relating to what went on in our past. People, especially those of my age and younger, should recall that the ridiculous arcane concept of illegitimacy was only abolished with the Status of Children Act 1987. Prior to that Act, children born of parents who were not married were legally illegitimate. In case anyone was unaware of this, the State issued a different colour birth certificate to remind them and everyone else. Looking back, it seems absolutely ridiculous and completely crazy that such a situation existed, but it did. Unfortunately, it exists today in a different way. Today, some children and de facto parents do not enjoy the same rights or protections of the law, and this is wrong. In the same way as the Status of Children Act moved to address these shortcomings and failings, so too will the Children and Family Relationships Bill. The Bill modernises the law and, in effect, represents the law catching up with the reality of everyday life in this country. Above all, the Bill is child-centred and addresses a range of areas, including parentage rights and responsibilities, guardianship, custody and access, donor-assisted reproduction and maintenance. The Bill represents the culmination of a long process of research, reform and consultation.
As part of the pre-legislative scrutiny process introduced by this Government, the Joint Committee on Health and Children held important hearings last April and produced a report on the proposed Bill. The Minister published the general scheme last September and facilitated further consultation and comment on the Bill’s contents and aims.
Opponents of the legislation are seeking to link it to the marriage equality referendum, which is equally important but separate. Opponents of this legislation are also seeking to confuse matters by focusing on families headed by same-sex couples. I have been dismayed, as have other Deputies, by the narrow focus some media outlets are putting on the Bill as well. While it is true that some of the families positively impacted are families headed by persons who happen to be gay or lesbian, the Bill impacts positively on hundreds of thousands of other families as well. These families include married parents, unmarried parents and grandparents or other relatives in a parenting role.
Section 40 enables a wider range of unmarried fathers to become guardians of their child automatically. A father who has lived with the child’s mother for 12 consecutive months, including at least three months with the mother and the child following the child’s birth, will automatically become a guardian. It will enable a parent’s spouse, civil partner or cohabitant of not less than three years’ duration to apply to the court to become a guardian where he or she has co-parented the child for two years. These provisions cover day-to-day issues in the best interests of the child.
Section 45 includes a new section 6E for the Guardianship of Infants Act 1964. This is welcome and shows that this Bill is child-centred. It enables a guardian or parent to appoint a temporary guardian for his or her child, through a court-based process, where the parent is suffering from serious illness or injury that prevents him or her from exercising his or her guardianship responsibilities.
Section 51 amends section 11B of the 1964 Act and will enable grandparents and other relatives to have easier access to children in the context of relationship breakdown. They will be able to apply directly to the court for access rather than having to go through the current two-stage process of applying to the court for leave to make the application for access. I welcome this provision.
Section 56 amends section 18A of the 1964 Act to ensure that the child in question can make his or her views known in proceedings relating to guardianship in custody and access cases, where possible and given the child’s age and understanding. It is welcome that where the child is of an age that he can make his views known, those views will be taken into account and listened to. I welcome this move.
Sections 66 to 73, inclusive, contain amendments to the Family Law (Maintenance of Spouses and Children Act) 1976. This landmark Act provided protection to spouses – in the main, wives – and children. It ensured that other spouses, mainly husbands, could not sell the family home to the detriment of the wife and children, among other protections. The amendments extend protections in a way that reflects the fact that couples may be of the same gender, though they may not be married or civil partners.
Section 75 deletes section 35(4) of the Status of Children Act. This means a child will now be able to make an application to a court for a declaration of parentage. This is being introduced because it is in the best interests of a person to know his or her identity.
Opponents of section 108 maintain it confers the right to adopt on same-sex couples. Let us be clear that no legislation, this Bill included, confers a right on anyone to adopt. A person has the right to apply to adopt and be rigorously assessed by the adoption authority. Section 108 extends the right to apply to adopt to cohabiting couples, whether same-sex or different-sex couples. The Bill duly recognises that a person’s parenting ability is not connected in any way to sexual orientation. Rather, it is about stability and the ability to provide a safe environment for the child.
Overall, I welcome the Bill. It is reflective of modern life. It recognises that a child has a right and need for security and stability and has the right to know that someone has a legal duty to look after him or her. It modernises the law by encompassing a wide area, including parentage, custody, maintenance and adoption. I welcome the Bill and I hope it has swift passage through the Dáil.