The Children and Family Relationships Bill 2015 attempts to modernize the family law area. When enacted, it will give legal recognition to the many diverse relationships that exist in modern day Ireland. It marks a change in Government policy regarding family life and the rights of the child in Ireland and recognizes the diverse range of family types that exist. It offers protection for children in all family types including step-parent families and families headed by cohabiting couples, gay or lesbian couples or by other extended family members.
To achieve this, the Bill addresses wide-ranging issues, including:
- parental rights of children living in diverse family arrangements;
- parentage in assisted human reproduction (excluding surrogacy);
- the establishment of a national donor-conceived person register;
- paternity in certain circumstances;
- the “best interests” principle with regard to children;
- joint adoption for civil partners or co-habiting partners;
- access entitlements for a wider range of people;
- defined maintenance provisions for civil partners and provisions to help ‘make parenting work’.
An important aspect of the Bill is its guardianship provisions. The Bill provides six pathways to guardianship, expanding the duties, obligations and rights of guardians and thereby further bolstering the rights of children.
For the first time, non-marital fathers cohabiting for a specified period with the child’s mother will be entitled to automatic guardianship.
Under Section 49 of the Bill, a parent or another eligible adult can apply to court for guardianship. An eligible adult is a person who is married to or in a civil partnership with a child’s parent, or has cohabited with the child’s parent for three years and shared responsibility for the child’s care for a two year period.
Persons who have cared for the child for one year, where no other parent or guardian is able or willing to fulfil the rights and duties of the role, may also be eligible to apply for guardianship. This therefore allows foster parents and other adults who provide day-to-day care for children to apply for guardianship on notice to the Child and Family Agency.
The legal ability to formalise the relationship between a child and their de facto parent is critical to ensure security, fairness and clarity in the child’s life and upbringing and the Bill’s recognition of this is an important step which should be welcomed. In addition, the Bill enables temporary guardians to be appointed on notice to the Child and Family Agency.
It is the most comprehensive amendment to the law on children and family relationships in many decades and thus is welcomed by this firm as long overdue.