Family matters ... but what does family mean in today's world?
The fluidity and diversity of modern family life are at last being recognised, writes Dr Geoffrey Shannon
The Children and Family Relationships Act represents the most significant change in family law in a generation.
Irrespective of the changing times we live in, the family is a constant feature in society, espousing positive ideals. The question 'What is the meaning of 'family'?' is one easily posed, but, in the Ireland of 2016, difficult to answer. A literal interpretation does not do justice to the considerable issues involved.
The family unit in society is concerned with safeguarding the general interests of all concerned, rather than those of any given individual member.
Since the foundation of the State until the third quarter of the 20th century, family life in Ireland was synonymous with marriage. A variety of factors acted as a catalyst for change to Irish family patterns. These included the softening of attitudes towards lone parenthood and the availability of contraception - but also the introduction of the unmarried mother's allowance in the 1970s. This made unmarried parenthood a realistic alternative to a pregnancy which previously had tended to precipitate a marriage.
In 1995, the family and the institution of marriage itself underwent a seismic alteration with the introduction of divorce by way of constitutional referendum. In the eyes of the law, marriage is no longer 'till death do us part'. The perpetual element that once formed the defining characteristic of marriage no longer exists. Rather, either party to a marriage now enjoys a right to terminate the marriage - even in the absence of fault on the part of either party.
The increasing fluidity and diversity of family forms made it no longer tenable for Irish law to recognise only one type of family. From April to June 2014, 36.1pc of registered births were outside marriage. These included situations involving lone, unmarried parents; unmarried and cohabiting couples; various types of blended families; and children living with their parent and a non-biological civil-partnered parent. Almost 215,300 children in Ireland today live with a lone parent; 104,665 children live with co-habiting, unmarried parents; and there are 230 same-sex couples with children.
The passing in 2015 of the Children and Family Relationships Act represents the most significant change in family law in a generation, reflecting the reality of modern family life in Ireland. It provides various new and different pathways to parentage, has overhauled many rules and created new rights for parents, both biological and social - and, most critically, for children.
The new law has brought a diverse range of family types in from the cold, offering greater protection for children in all family types. These families deserve recognition, security and equity. Allowing for parentage to be legally confirmed and recognised is an important element in this. It is vital for children.
It ensures that those providing, supporting and caring for the child are given the rights, responsibilities and legally consequential duties attendant upon parenthood.
One major development in the legislation is in the area of guardianship. For the first time, non-marital fathers cohabiting for a specified period with the child's mother, are entitled to automatic guardianship.
Persons who have cared for the child for one year, where no other parent or guardian is able or willing to fulfil the rights and duties of the role, may also be eligible to apply for guardianship on notice to the Child and Family Agency.
This will allow grandparents and other adults who provide day-to-day care for children to apply for guardianship. The legal ability to formalise the relationship between a child and their de facto parent is critical to ensure security, fairness and clarity in the child's life and upbringing.
The new Act's recognition of this is an important step which should be welcomed by all.
Dr Geoffrey Shannon is a solicitor and the Government Special Rapporteur on Child Protection.
He is the author of a new publication 'Children and Family Relationships Law in Ireland: Practice and Procedure', which is available from Clarus Press this June