Unmarried fathers to be given more rights under new laws
UNMARRIED fathers who have lived with the mother of their child for more than a year will have automatic guardianship rights under sweeping changes to family law.
The landmark legislation will, for the first time, give unmarried fathers legal rights to access to their children despite being separated from their children's mother.
Only mothers currently have guaranteed guardianship of a child born outside marriage and fathers can be forced to engage in lengthy legal battles to get access to their child.
The new rules, which are contained in the Government's Children and Family Relationships Bill, have been welcomed by children's charity Barnardos, which described the legislation as a "hugely significant development".
If the bill proposed by Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald is passed, unmarried fathers who lived with a partner for 12 consecutive months - including at least three months after their child is born - will automatically become a guardian.
Currently, fathers can only secure rights to their child if they obtain a statutory declaration signed by the mother allowing access.
They can also apply for guardianship through the district court, but neither route guarantees becoming a guardian to their child.
Barnardos said the new provision "recognises and values the commitment of fathers to their children, and by applying a cohabitation clause, ensures that fathers who do not wish or intend to be involved in their child's life are not automatic guardians".
"It also ensures that fathers of children conceived as a result of rape or incest are not automatic guardians."
Step-parents and a parent's cohabiting partner will be able to apply for guardianship if they have shared caring responsibilities for a child for more than two years.
In these cases, guardianship will be limited to 'day-to-day' decisions while major issues regarding residence, religion and education will be the sole responsibility of a biological parent.