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Dublin: 14 °C Saturday 23 August, 2014

Column: Tragic case of newborn boy highlights unmarried fathers’ lack of rights

A Dublin hospital has secured a court order to withdraw life-support from a severely brain-damaged baby whose his young mother died after delivery. As the child’s parents were unmarried, the father was not deemed the legal guardian.

Margot Doherty

A High Court order today granted a Dublin hospital permission to withdraw life-support treatment from a severely brain-damaged baby boy whose his young mother died shortly after giving birth earlier this week. Although the infant’s father supported the decision to remove life-support, he had no legal say in his son’s treatment due to the fact that he and the child’s mother were unmarried.

Here, Margot Doherty of Treoir – the information and referral service for unmarried parents – discusses how this sad case highlights the precarious legal standing of unmarried fathers.

THE TRAGIC CASE of the very ill baby boy born in a Dublin maternity hospital highlights the lack of rights afforded to unmarried fathers. Where a child is born to unmarried parents, only the mother has automatic guardianship rights and consequently is the only one who can make major decisions in relation to her child, such as giving consent to medical treatment, leaving the country, choice of religion, school etc.

Where a child is born to married parents, both parents automatically have joint guardianship rights in respect of their children. And if the parents of this baby boy had been married to each other, then the father would have had the right to make the decision as to the baby’s treatment. In this case, because the father was not married to the mother, he had no right to make this decision in respect of his baby boy.

Treoir operates the National Specialist Information Service for unmarried parents, single or cohabiting, their extended families and those who work with them. We give information on the legal rights of unmarried parents, which are different from those of married parents.

Many unmarried parents are seriously misinformed about their rights

We have received a number of calls from worried pregnant women who are concerned as a result of this tragedy. We are recommending that the mother make a Will, while pregnant, to appoint the father, or indeed any other appropriate person, for example a grandparent, to be a Testamentary Guardian of her child in the event of her death during labour.

From calls received in our Information Service we know that many unmarried parents are seriously misinformed about guardianship rights. It is generally assumed where the father’s name is on the child’s birth certificate that he is a joint guardian of the child with the mother. This is not so. Often cohabiting parents assume because they are living together that the father has guardianship rights in respect of their child. This is also not so.

Unmarried fathers must act in order to get their guardianship rights and this can be done in two ways:

  1. Where the mother agrees to the father becoming a guardian they both can sign a Guardianship of Children Statutory Declaration in front of a peace commissioner or commissioner for oaths which would give the unmarried father joint guardianship rights with the mother.
  2. Where the mother does not agree, the unmarried father can apply to the local District Court to be appointed a guardian of his child.

Minister for Justice, Alan Shatter, TD, has published a Children and Family Relationships Bill briefing note (PDF – 56KB) which, if the provisions are enacted, would give automatic guardianship rights to unmarried fathers who are living with the mother for at least a year before the birth of a child.

Drawing unmarried parents’ attention to their rights

Treoir proposes a further improvement: that when unmarried parents are registering the birth of their babies their attention should be drawn to the fact that having the father’s name on his child’s birth certificate does not give the father any guardianship rights whatsoever. It could then be possible for the parents to sign the Guardianship of Children Statutory Declaration there and then.

Our Information Service receives a large number of requests for the Guardianship of Children Statutory Declaration (available to download from our website) but, because Declarations are not registered in any central register, we do not know how many fathers have their guardianship by way of signing the Declaration. We have been campaigning for many years for the establishment of a Central Register of Guardianship Declarations where these Declarations can be recorded and referred to.

We have great sympathy for the baby’s father, grandmother, and extended family members in this heart-rending situation.

Margot Doherty is a founding member of Treoir and has been working with them for the last 30 years. Over that time she has worked as an information officer, writing many publications and is now the policy officer as well as being Assistant Chief Executive.

Unmarried parents and their extended families can contact Treoir for specialist information on the legal rights and responsibilities of unmarried parents, living together or not. To speak in confidence to a information officer call 1890 252 084 or you can email info@treoir.ie. Visit the website and keep up to date with information by following Treoir on Facebook and Twitter.

Read: Fathers’ rights group protests outside Taoiseach’s home

Read: New law may make it compulsory to include father’s name on birth cert

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