Today on Human Rights in Ireland we are delighted to host a mini Blog Carnival on the draft wording for a constitutional amendment on the child set out in the final report of the Oireachtas Committee on the Constitutional Amendment on Children.
As one Carnival contributor highlights, the proposed amendment ‘offers much material for discussion in terms of scope, substance and process’. On the day upon which the Committee’s report was released, I wrote a piece analysing the draft wording from the perspective of the compliance of such with Ireland’s obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The contributions to today’s Carnival continue, and contribute significantly to, the widespread discussion and debate initiated by the publication of the Committee’s Final Report. Focussing on key questions related to the protection of children’s rights in Ireland, each commentator provides their perspective on issues arising from the proposed constitutional amendment wording.
- Fergus Ryan of DIT addresses the implications of the proposed constitutional amendment in terms of family law reform.
- Ursula Kilkelly of UCC considers the issue of the ‘best interests’ principle, which is explicitly included in the draft wording.
- The Children’s Rights Alliance sets out its response to the Committee’s proposed amendment, arguing that the time is ripe for constitutional change on children’s rights.
- Conor O’Mahony of UCC looks at the education-related implications of the draft wording.
- Nicola Carr of QUB discusses the proposed amendment in terms of the rights of children in care.
- Finally, Fiona de Londras of UCD and (of course) HRinI writes about the importance of a reflective and careful debate and the dangers of unquestioningly accepting the proposed wording
As always, comments are very welcome.
You can learn more about Fergus Ryan on our guest contributors page.
Waiting for family law reform is a bit like waiting for a bus. You linger forlornly for what seems likes an eternity, stoically weathering the elements. Then, just as you are about to give up, along comes a bus — and two more buses directly behind it.
In the past year, the Republic of Ireland has seen three major proposals for family law reform. The Civil Partnership Bill 2009, which is currently before the Dáil, promises a substantial new civil status for registered same-sex couples, with additional protective measures for cohabiting couples, same-sex and opposite-sex. The Law Reform Commission consultation paper, The Legal Aspects of Family Relationships, provisionally recommends some long overdue reforms to the law as it relates to guardianship, custody and access.
There is much to be welcomed also in the proposed constitutional amendment on children. For one, the proposed new Article 42 will apply to all children, and not just those born within marriage. The proposed amendment contains, in particular, a ground-breaking assertion that “[t]he State shall cherish all the children of the State equally.” This will banish, one hopes, the spectre of O’B v S,  IR 316, a Supreme Court decision that affirmed the constitutional validity of measures that discriminate against non-marital children. The Court concluded that the constitutional preference for marriage trumped the child’s right to equality. This constitutional amendment would arguably reverse that stance. Read more…
You can learn more about Ursula Kilkelly on our guest contributors page.
The report of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on the amendment to the Irish Constitution includes a proposal to include what is commonly known as the ‘best interests principle’ into the new Article 42 in two forms. The first form appears in Article 42.1.2° which recognizes the rights of all children and specifies that this includes the right ‘to have their welfare regarded as a primary consideration’. Although this provision refers to ‘welfare’ rather than ‘best interests’ and so could be said to be narrower (and arguably more paternalistic) in nature it otherwise mirrors the standard set out in Article 3 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). Although the latter has been criticised for not requiring that the child’s interests are paramount, its strength is that it has wide application, potentially applying to all areas of state decision-making that affect children. Including this principle here, therefore, should require the state to ensure that regard is had to the child’s welfare in areas like budgetary decision-making, planning, immigration and criminal justice. Read more…
You can learn more about Jillian van Turnhout on our guest contributors page.
The vision of the Children’s Rights Alliance is that Ireland will be one of the best places in the world to be a child. On 16 February 2010, the Joint Committee on the Constitutional Amendment on Children moved us that bit closer towards securing this vision, when it published its Final Report. Crucially, the Report includes all-party agreement on a proposed wording for a constitutional amendment to strengthen children’s rights and this, in itself, is a significant step forward.
A major stumbling block to realising our vision has always been the Irish Constitution – the fundamental law of the country. Written in 1937, at a time when children were ‘seen and not heard’ and where, for example, it was the norm for teachers to physically chastise children and for children to be seen as mere possessions of adults, it has become very outdated. A litany of reports, court cases, and inquiries, have, over the years, also highlighted the need for constitutional change for children. Read more…
You can learn more about Conor O’Mahony on our guest contributors page.
As part of the proposed constitutional amendment on children, the proposed new Article 42.2 proposes to enumerate, for the first time, a number of the rights of children, including “the right of the child to an education”. The proposal to include an explicit right of the child to education is welcome – indeed, it was recommended by the Constitution Review Group in 1996 – but in all probability, it changes little. The existence of such a right, correlative to the duty of the State under the existing Article 42.4 to provide for free primary education, was clearly reognised in Crowley v Ireland  I.R. 102 and has never been questioned since. The new provision could potentially be interpreted as being broader, given that it refers to “an education” rather than merely to “primary education”. However, it is unlikely that the courts – and particularly the current Supreme Court – would interpret this as including a positive right to education at a level higher than primary, given that the corresponding duty of the State under the re-numbered Article 42.8 would still refer only to primary education. While the Oireachtas Committee Report states that the rights that are recognised in the proposed Article 42.2 are “designed to make a tangible difference to children’s rights”, there is no suggestion that there was any intention to take a step as significant as extending the right to free State education beyond primary level, and in the absence of such a clear intention, no court is likely to so interpret the provision. Read more…
You can learn more about Nicola Carr on our guest contributors page.
The case for an amendment to the Irish Constitution to specifically enumerate the rights of children has been well set out by a range of commentators over a period of time. The issues pertaining to children in care or those on the ‘edges of care’ (that is those children who may be eligible for placement in care on the grounds of protection or welfare), have been a touchstone in these debates.
It has been argued that the balance between the ‘inalienable and imprescritible rights’ of the family, as set out in Article 41.1, and the power of the State to intervene in ‘exceptional circumstances’ where the parents in the said family have been deemed to have ‘failed’ in their duty as set out in Article 42.5, has been too strongly skewed towards the rights of the (marital) family. It has also been criticised for setting the threshold for State intervention too high. In the Report of the Kilkenny Incest Inquiry (1993) Justice Catherine McGuinness identified that the status of the martial family within the Irish Constitution was one of the barriers to State intervention in cases such as that described in the Inquiry Report – where a range of services had failed to successfully intervene in a case of longstanding abuse. Justice McGuinness therefore recommended that consideration be given to strengthening the rights of children by way of a Constitutional amendment. Read more…
You can learn more about Fiona de Londras on our regular contributors page
The proposed children’s rights amendment to the Constitution offers much material for discussion in terms of scope, substance and process and these questions are considered in the other contributions to this blog carnival. My intention in this contribution is to take a step back and consider the importance of having a reflective, reasoned and open period of debate on the wording of the proposals before progressing to a formal constitutional referendum. The risk, after a long period of committee-based consideration and consultation such as that which has taken place around these proposals (even if that consultation was somewhat limited in various ways), is that the wording as proposed would be presumptively considered to be the final wording for the referendum. In such circumstances the debate would likely be dominated by somewhat polemic and positional viewpoints on the value and risks of separately enshrined children’s rights and away from the important question of what kind of language and constitutionalist value relating to children we as a people want to enshrine in the Bunreacht.
This danger is exacerbated in the context of children’s rights in Ireland by the particular social context in which the proposed wording has emerged. The recent past has brought to public attention the neglect and abuse suffered by children in Ireland at the hands of institutions to whom their care was entrusted, particularly institutions run by religious orders. The scale and extremity of the abuse and neglect that has been exposed has put the vulnerabilities experienced by children into sharp relief. In addition, the position of children who are being cared for within the family has also been brought into public consciousness in cases and controversies surrounding matters such as parental refusal for blood transfusions, medical treatment, access and guardianship, legal protection for the child’s relationship with unmarried fathers and so on. Read more…