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Opinion: What will compulsory birth registration of unmarried fathers’ names mean for children?

A child has a right to the identity of both parents, and radical new legislation seeks to underline this.

Margot Doherty

NEW PROPOSALS PUT forward in the Civil Registration (Amendment) Bill 2014 will, for the first time in Ireland, place a duty on unmarried parents to register the father’s name on the birth certificate of their child. Treoir very much welcomes this new Bill, as one of Treoir’s principles is that a child has a right to the identity of both parents.

This is the latest in a suite of radical legislation concerning families other than families based on marriage. The Civil Partnership and Certain Rights and Obligations of Cohabitants Act 2010 allowed for the legal recognition of civil partnerships and rights of cohabitants, and the proposed General Scheme of a Children and Family Relationships Bill published in 2014 proposes legal rights for parents in different types of families. The child’s right to identity features strongly in this Bill also.

Now, the Department of Social Protection is introducing what is commonly referred to as compulsory birth registration of both parents’ names in the Register of Births of children born to unmarried parents. The vast majority of births to unmarried parents are registered with the names of both parents on the child’s birth certificate. This is not altogether surprising given that about 60% of births to unmarried parents are to parents who are living at the same address.

How will the Bill work?

Under the 2014 Bill, when a mother goes to register her child’s birth on her own the Registrar will not register the child’s surname and will ask the mother for contact details of the father. The Registrar will make “all reasonable efforts” to contact the father and invite him to attend the Registrar’s Office within 28 days.

The father can complete a statutory declaration stating that he is the father and his details can be entered in the Register. It is unclear from the Bill how the surname will be decided on, but it appears that if the parents are not in agreement then no surname for the child will be entered. There is provision for the surname to be subsequently registered where the parents agree.

If, having made all reasonable efforts, the Registrar is satisfied that no contact can be made with the father s/he will complete the registration without the father’s details.

Compelling reasons

Where the mother does not want the father’s name to go in the Register of Births then she must complete a statutory declaration stating that either a) she doesn’t know who the father is, b) she doesn’t know where he is or c) she believes that giving this information would not be in the best interest of the safety of the child. She may have to provide evidence to that effect. Many women suffering domestic violence and those working with them may view the exceptions as too stringent as there is no mention of the safety of the mother, as opposed to the child, as being a “compelling reason” for not registering the birth.

If the Registrar is satisfied that one of the “compelling reasons” outlined above exists then s/he will register the birth without the father’s details. If s/he is not satisfied, then s/he will notify the mother giving the reasons for arriving at this decision and requesting the father’s details. If the mother is not happy with this decision she can appeal to a Superintendent Registrar and ultimately the Circuit Court for a decision.

Married mothers

A second part to this Bill concerns married women who give birth but their husbands are not the fathers of their children. Heretofore, if a mother did not have a decree of divorce or deed of separation, or if her husband would not sign an affidavit to say he was not the father or if the mother did not know where he was, or if it was not possible to get a court order naming the biological father, then the husband’s name would have been entered in the Register of Births. It was not possible to leave the father’s name blank.

If enacted this new Bill will address this issue in that the mother can now make a statutory declaration stating that she has been living apart from her husband for at least 10 months and that her husband is not the father of her child. The declaration must also contain the name and last known address of the husband. It may be necessary for the mother to have some evidence that she was living apart from her husband.

The Registrar will make “all reasonable efforts” to contact the husband and invite him to attend the Registrar’s Office within 28 days. The husband can complete a statutory declaration stating that he is not the father. The father’s details can then be entered in the Register with an appropriate statutory declaration from the father stating that he is the father.

If the Registrar is satisfied that no contact can be made with the husband and is satisfied that the mother has been living apart from the husband for the required time then the father’s details can be registered with appropriate statutory declarations from both parents.

If the Registrar is not satisfied that the mother has been living apart from her husband for the required time, s/he will notify the mother in writing of that decision and stating that s/he is obliged to register the birth with the husband’s particulars. The mother may appeal this decision within 28 days to a Superintendent Registrar and the Circuit Court.

Fathers’ rights

Many parents mistakenly believe that where a father’s name is on his child’s birth certificate this gives him legal rights to his child. This is not so.

Many mothers mistakenly believe that if the father’s name is registered, it will affect their entitlement to One-Parent Family Payment. This is also not so.

Having the father’s name on his child’s birth certificate helps to establish the child’s sense of identity as s/he grows up. This is what the Bill is seeking to address. The Tánaiste said “The right of the child to know who both their parents are is a very important right. In recognising this right the Bill is giving every child a greater sense of identity.”

The Civil Registration (Amendment) Bill 2014 contains other proposals regarding stillbirths, marriages or civil partnerships of convenience and other technical proposals which are not discussed here.

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 an 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.

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About the author:

Margot Doherty

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