Last January, because of the law in the Republic of Ireland, a man whose partner died shortly after giving birth to their catastrophically brain-damaged baby, had to seek court intervention to allow him give consent for the withdrawal of his child’s life support.
In response to the tragedy, Eamonn Quinn of the Unmarried and Separated Parents of Ireland, compared the legal deficiencies with provision in the UK. “If this case had happened ‘up the road’ in Belfast, the father would have automatically been the person making the decisions about his baby without having a court case added to his ordeal”.
The case was a rarity, but a reminder of the lack of legal safeguards or rights for unmarried fathers in Ireland.
Only married fathers have automatic guardianship of their children. In unmarried couples, the mother is the sole legal guardian unless and until the father actively seeks guardianship.
Without guardianship, the father does not have the right to seek medical treatment for his child, or query the educational or religious upbringing of his own child. Nor can he apply for a passport for his child or decide where he or she will live.
How does he get guardianship of this child?
One of two ways. If the mother is happy to share guardianship, he can get a form called the ‘Statutory Declaration of Father and Mother in Relation to Joint Guardianship of Child/Children’ which is available online or from court offices, and fill it in with his child’s mother in front of a peace commissioner. If the mother objects, the father can apply to his local district court to be made a joint guardian. The mother’s views will be considered but will not dictate the court’s decision.
What happens if he doesn’t seek guardianship?
If the couple separates, he will have no automatic rights to involvement in his child’s upbringing and can’t stop the mother taking the child out of the country. All rights would have to be fought for in court. Even in a stable relationship, lack of guardianship can cause problems if the father alone accompanies the child to hospital as he won’t be able to give treatment consent.
Is this a common scenario?
Around 26,000 children are born in Ireland every year to unmarried parents — 33% of all children born. It is not known how many of the fathers have a declaration of joint guardianship because the details are not recorded by any agency.
What’s being done about it?
Not enough say campaigners. In 2013, Justice Minister Alan Shatter promised legislation to grant automatic guardianship to cohabiting fathers but there no timeline was specified.
Sources: The Irish Examiner/The Irish Independent/Unmarried and Separated Parents of Ireland.