Unmarried fathers will become guardians of their children automatically as part of fundamental changes to family law introduced by Frances Fitzgerald yesterday.
The justice minister signed the commencement order for eight sections of the Children and Family Relationship Act 2015. The legislation grants unmarried fathers automatic guardianship rights after they have lived with their partner and child for a certain period of time. Men must have cohabited with the mother for a year, including three months after the child was born.The cohabitation period will start to count from yesterday, so men who are already fathers will have to wait a year before they are covered by the new law.
The change will also allow a person other than a parent to apply to become a child’s guardian.
Civil partners will be able to apply for custody if they have been acting as a parent for two years. Grandparents and other relatives who have been a child’s primary care providers for more than a year will be able to apply for custody when parents are not willing or able to look after the child. It will also be easier for relatives to apply for access to children after a relationship breakdown.
Treoir, a group campaigning for the rights of unmarried parents, said that it welcomed the legislation but was disappointed certain omissions. Margaret Dromey, its chief executive, said: “The thing we are most disappointed about, which we fought long and hard for, was to have a provision at the point of birth registration, or within two weeks, that the registrar would facilitate a couple to sign a declaration for joint guardianship. Our concern is that very often, people assume they have guardianship rights just because their name is on a birth certificate. That’s all very well until the relationship breaks down and the father realises he has no legal rights.”
Ms Dromey said that the change had been included in the bill, but was dropped because of disputes over new measures to tackle sham marriages. She called on Joan Burton, the minister for social protection, to “resolve whatever dispute slowed this legislation down”.
The new legislation will mean that the children of those in civil partnerships will have the same protection as those whose parents are married. A civil partner can also be ordered to pay maintenance support for a child, including in cases where the child is related biologically only to the other partner.
Ms Fitzgerald said that the new rules would modernise family law. “They take a child-centred approach, making a child’s best interests the paramount consideration for a court in family law cases,” she said.
“In particular these changes in law recognise that many children are being reared by step-parents or by a parent’s cohabiting partner. Step-parents, civil partners and cohabiting partners will be able to apply to become guardians of a child or for custody. It will be easier for grandparents and other key people in a child’s life to apply for access.”