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The Irish Government has approved changes to the Civil Registration Act 2004, which will now demand that unmarried fathers names will now have to be included on their child’s birth certificate. This move is well overdue and brings Ireland into line with other civilised western countries, but it is far from a step far enough for children and fathers rights. At present unmarried parents are not obliged to state the fathers name on the birth certificate, this amendment will now make it compulsory to include those details other than in exceptional circumstances. However, it confers no more rights to a father for his children than the current status quo, the issue of guardianship of a child has not been addressed or changed by this move. Up until now many fathers believed that if their name was on the birth certificate they would have automatic guardianship of their child, this is not the case and guardianship for unmarried fathers must be applied for through the courts. The reality of a father not having guardianship means that the father does not have the right to seek medical treatment for his child, the father does not have the right to query the educational, religious and sundry rights of his own child.
The family law courts have anecdotally given the benefit of the doubt to the mother to make decisions on the welfare and visitation rights to her child and many fathers who are not guardians of their children are denied access rights on the request of the child’s mother. This current situation is completely outdated and totally unfair and does not take into account the rights of the child to spend time with both of their parents. Although the change to the Civil Registration Act 2004 will give children vital information about their identity and hold errant fathers to account to provide for their children, it does not give loving and caring fathers the right to automatic guardianship and access to their children. It also addresses the current situation whereby mothers decide they wish not to put the fathers name on the birth certificate due to concerns over the fathers future hold on the child.
At present there are 40,000 children born outside marriage, according to Central Statistics Office figures from 2012. In accordance with Irish law previously to this amendment those men have no automatic rights to their children, however without guardianship in essence fathers still have no more significant rights in the upbringing and access to their children. The move to change the registration process by the Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton, because it is under her remit, would appear to be more concerned with social welfare claims and maintenance. If this is the case and the amendment forces more errant fathers to face up their responsibilities and contribute financially to their children’s upbringing that is to be welcomed.
However, if this is a revenue earning exercise by the Government to stamp out claims for unmarried parents allowances then that is a very worrying development. Many happy and loving parents live apart due to fears that their benefits will be cut and it is not known of the 25,000 that live apart, if they are still together or not, but choose to live apart because of the financial repercussions. This issue needs to be dealt with immediately, parents who are still together in a relationship should not be penalised by social protection rules because they live together.
The Government appointed Child Protection watchdog, Geoffrey Shannon, earlier this month in his annual report, recommended that there should be an extension of guardianship rights and that such rights should be automatically conferred on unmarried fathers. He was critical of the current situation whereby only the mother and married fathers became automatic guardians of their children and went on to say that, “This approach is likely to encourage responsible parenthood by fathers and sends out a signal that all fathers are equally responsible for their children.
The changes made to the Registration Act do not go far enough and will continue to make fathers second class citizens in their children’s lives, it also does not adhere to the EU Charter of Fundamental rights that requires that the best interests of the child is a primary consideration in all actions concerning children. We need serious overhaul and reform of the legal process in the areas of guardianship, access and custody, there has been little progress since the 1996 Law Reform Commission report on Family Law and this must be urgently addressed, it is now high time that unmarried fathers are automatically conferred with guardianship of their own children.
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