Call for legal clarity on rights of polygamous families

Supreme Court judge says urgent attention must be given to legislating on polygamy

Urgent attention should be given to introducing legislation to clarify what rights and obligations apply to polygamous families living in Ireland, a Supreme Court judge has said.

The comment by Mr Justice Frank Clarke was made in a ruling where the court found that the first marriage of a Muslim man who had married two women in Lebanon, as is allowed there, was a valid marriage in Irish law.

The second marriage, the court ruled, could not be recognised here but that did not compel the State to “deny all legal effect to polygamous marriages in all contexts”.

The man and his two wives, and a number of children by both women, all live in the State.


“There is no particular reason why a marriage should not be given recognition for certain purposes, as has been done in many instances in the courts of the United Kingdom,” Ms Justice Iseult O’Malley said in the main judgment.

She was supported by Mr Justice Frank Clarke, who said the courts in the UK, France and Germany, all of which had significant Muslim populations, have had to deal with questions about the rights of people in polygamous marriages that were lawful in the countries where they had occurred.

Urgent attention

Dealing with such matters would be all the more difficult for the Irish courts in the absence of legislation, he said. He called for “urgent attention” to be given to legislating for the matter.

Recognition of polygamous situations might address practical consequences such as inheritance, pensions, maintenance and the like, he said.

The court heard there are more than 60,000 Muslims living here, but few known instances of polygamous marriages.

Dr Ali Selim of the Islamic Cultural Centre in Ireland said a debate was needed on the position of families who come to Ireland and who are polygamous.

He said that if someone was married to two wives, because his country allows that, and he had children from both wives, the law as it stood recognised one side and rejected the other, and that might be very difficult for the children.

A spokesman for the Department of Justice said the implications of the judgment, including the question of the need for legislation, would be carefully examined. Fianna Fáil justice spokesman Jim O’Callaghan called on the Government to prepare legislation “urgently”.

Colm Keena

Colm Keena

Colm Keena is an Irish Times journalist. He was previously legal-affairs correspondent and public-affairs correspondent