Single fathers get easier route to guardianship with law change

Landmark family law changes are to allow unmarried fathers automatically become guardians of a child as well as grant relatives and step-parents an easier route to guardianship.

Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald announced she has passed the new changes into law, which would allow a grandparent become a guardian.

Children’s rights advocates welcomed the order for the family law reform changes, saying they would help thousands of children whose interest would be paramount in any future court proceedings.

Ms Fitzgerald said the enacted reforms under the Children and Family Relationship Act recognised the increasing diversity of family life. Some of the changes include:

  • Unmarried fathers automatically become guardians if they live for 12 months with the child’s mother, including three months following a child’s birth. The change is not retrospective;
  • A parent’s spouse or civil partner, of not less than thee years, can apply for custody where he or she has shared parenting of the child for two years;
  • A grandparent or other relative can apply to court for custody where he or she has cared for the child from day to day for at least 12 months and the child has no parent or guardian;.
  • A child co-parented by civil partners will have the same protections as under marriage;
  • The court can impose enforcement orders where a guardian is denied access, requiring he or she get compensatory time with the child or that both parties attend parenting programmes.

Ms Fitzgerald said: “These reforms recognise the crucial role of parents and the need for a child to maintain meaningful relationships with both parents.”

Frances Fitzgerald

Her department said proposed reforms for adoption in the new legislation, to allow civil partners or gay couples to adopt, were not part of the order. This was a matter for James Reilly, Minister for Children, her department said.

Treoir, a service for unmarried fathers, welcomed the reforms, but said it was disappointing the measures were not retrospective and that fathers would have to wait a year under changes.

Under the measures, unmarried fathers will, for the first time, automatically become guardians of their children if they meet a cohabitation requirement.

An unmarried father who lives for 12 months with the child’s mother, including three months following a child’s birth, will automatically become a guardian. However, guardianship will only be acquired automatically where the parents live together for at least 12 months and the change is not retrospective.

Children’s Rights Alliance CEO Tanya Ward also welcomed the new changes, saying: “The legislation will impact positively on the lives of thousands of children and their families. It plugs a gap in our law that had left children stranded if their family broke down.

Tanya Ward, CEO Children’s Rights Alliance

“For the first time in Irish law, the act provides comprehensive guidance to the courts on what considerations to take into account when making a determination on the child’s best interests. This will provide much-needed guidance for the judiciary and will promote consistent application across the country.”

Ms Ward noted the reforms were also in line with the United Nations Convention on the rights of the child.

Other changes will mean a maintenance responsibility may be imposed on a cohabiting partner for a partner’s child where the partner is a guardian of the child. Relatives of a child, such as grandparents or an aunt or uncle or those acting as parents, will also be able to apply to have access to a child more easily if there is a breakdown in a family relationship.

Ms Fitzgerald said: “These reforms deliver on the Government’s commitment in the programme for government to modernise family law to accommodate the realities of family life.”

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