Outdated laws are not fair to modern families – Fitzgerald
The country needs to "recognise the reality - not the idealised version" of the family, Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald says.
The minister said the Government needs to change outdated laws because of the diverse range of families - including those headed by unmarried parents and same-sex parents.
She said the traditional family model is evolving, with one in three children born outside wedlock, which is why the Children and Family Relations Bill is currently being put through the Dáil and Seanad and also why the Government will ask voters to approve a referendum on same-sex marriage
"We cannot discriminate against children and their parents in different kinds of families just because they do not conform to a particular model which has been traditionally recognised," Ms Fitzgerald told the Irish Independent.
"We have an obligation to protect these children and their parents in their circumstances as they are. We need to recognise the reality - not the idealised version," the Justice Minister added.
Ms Fitzgerald pointed to the following family information from Central Statistics Office:
POLL: The family
Census 2011 showed 215,300 families with children headed by lone parents in Ireland; and 44pc of these parents had never been married.
There were 49,005 households of cohabiting couples with children under 15 recorded in Census 2011.
The number of children living in cohabiting households is rapidly increasing, rising by 41pc between 2006 and 2011.
The minister said there were always different models of family in Ireland with single parents, either widowed or separated informally or formally; grandparents; and/or the extended family; or neighbours and friends taking a direct role in raising children. But she said the increasing trends of urbanisation and more women in the workplace had contributed to the growth of family models different from the classic "father, mother and child or children model".
"It is the reality of life in contemporary Ireland and the law must reflect this. A lot of people, effectively acting as parents to a child, are now left in a legal limbo and this must be addressed," Ms Fitzgerald said.
"There are lots of situations where a 'step-parent' does not have the legal status to sign an authorisation form for school games or a school trip. We currently have a lesser form of parent and that is not a good thing," she added.
Ms Fitzgerald said there are now 4,000 same-sex couples living together in Ireland. She argued that the new legislation will put child welfare at the centre of the law.
The minister said the law must also address the issue of sperm donation and assisted human reproduction.
"The availability of assisted human reproduction arrangements has led to the birth of children in Ireland who need legal certainty in terms of their parentage and guardianship," she said.
The Child and Family Relations Bill, described by the Taoiseach as the biggest change in family law since the foundation of the State, has made good progress through the Dáil and cleared the all-important committee stage last Thursday. Promised cross-party support has held up so far and its prospects of going through the Dáil and Seanad by the end of this month look good.
Ms Fitzgerald continues to argue that it is distinct from the forthcoming same-sex marriage referendum. But groups opposing the referendum and this legislation maintain that both issues are very closely related.
Groups, such as 'Mothers and Fathers Matter', headed by Professor Ray Kinsella, are intent on making child welfare and the traditional family model key issues in the same-sex marriage referendum. Opinion polls indicate that there is a large majority ready to endorse the referendum - but doubts remain about how strongly-held voters' views are and a big campaign is expected ahead of polling on May 22 next.
Next week, the minister will publish the general outline of The Marriage Bill 2015 which would be enacted assuming the referendum is carried.