The Children and Family Relationships Bill 2015—Proposed Changes to Ireland’s Family Law System

The Children and Family Relationships Bill 2015 was passed in the Seanad last Monday, 30th March, after heated debate and no less than 122 amendments.  The Bill has been hailed by many as an overhaul of Ireland’s current family law system and deals with a plethora of  family law matters.  This article will explore just some of the amendments the Bill proposes to introduce to our family law system, in particular, those changes to the laws governing guardianship, custody, access and adoption.
The Bill proposes to afford enhanced rights in respect of guardianship to fathers, spouses, cohabitants and civil partners.
Current laws provide that, where the parents of a child are not married, the natural mother only is an automatic guardian of that child.  Further legal steps, such as a court order or the agreement of the mother, must be taken by an unmarried father to have him appointed as a joint guardian of the child. However, the Bill provides that a father  who has lived with the child’s mother for 12 consecutive months, including at least three months with the mother and the child, will automatically become a joint guardian of that child.
In addition, 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, is entitled to apply to become a guardian of that child.
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 affords an opportunity to foster parents and other adults who provide day-to-day care for children to apply for guardianship.
Custody and Access
The Bill proposes to afford improved rights of custody and access to a wider range of family members.
In particular, grandparents and other relatives are expected to be afforded easier recourse to the courts to have access to children in the context of relationship breakdown, and to apply for custody if there is no parent willing or able to take responsibility for caring for the child.
Under the Bill, civil partners and cohabiting couples who have lived together for three years or more will be afforded the right to jointly adopt, which they currently cannot do as a couple. The Bill provides that such couples are to be subject to the same eligibility criteria and assessments as those applicable to married couples.
The Bill runs to more than 170 sections and therefore, this article has only touched on some of the proposed changes to our present family law system.  The Bill, at the time of writing this article, has not yet been enacted but it is anticipated that the Bill will be passed into law over the coming months, in advance of the referendums due to take place in May of this year.