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Unmarried fathers - Irish Times September 10, 2009

The Irish Times - Thursday, September 10, 2009

Unmarried fathers

IT IS more than 20 years since the status of illegitimacy was abolished, following a 1982 report from the Law Reform Commission on the law regarding children. This had a major impact on the ending of the stigma attached to the children of unmarried parents and on their rights. Since then the number of non-marital births has risen to one in three with the result that the reform has had profound implications for hundreds of thousands of children.

That same report also recommended that unmarried fathers be recognised as guardians of their children but this was not followed through into the legislation. Now, 27 years later, the commission is reiterating this recommendation in a consultation paper. It proposes leaving open the possibility that there may be rare circumstances where it would not be in the best interests of the child that its non-marital father be joint guardian, but stresses that the presumption should be in favour of his guardianship – which the commission redefines as parental responsibility in line with international terminology.

The commission is also proposing a number of measures to encourage unmarried parents to put the father’s name on the birth certificates of their children. At the moment about 20 per cent of unmarried mothers register the birth of their children without registering the name of the father, thereby depriving the child of his or her full right to an identity.

The rights of children to the company and support of the extended family is also dealt with. There are numerous instances where, for example, the parent or parents are unable to care for a child and the grandparents take on the role. However, they cannot be the legal guardians and cannot make decisions about medical treatment, passports or education. The commission makes a number of welcome proposals to address this and other issues.

These legal reforms are long overdue and should be acted upon quickly. It is absurd that a father who wants to be involved in the life of his child should not have legal recognition of his position and equally absurd that the child cannot be secure in the knowledge that the law will uphold the place of his or her father in that life.

The form of the Irish family has changed very radically in the last 25 years and the law needs to reflect this so that children in non-traditional families have the same rights to a guaranteed place in their lives for all those who love them and care for them as do children in the traditional marital family.

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