DESPITE ONE-THIRD of births occurring in non-marital relationships, unmarried Irish fathers remain deeply ignorant of their legal situation.
Under Irish law, such fathers have no automatic right to the day-to-day care of their children (“custody”) or to a say in the upbringing of their children (“guardianship”). What they have is the right to apply to a court, which may then extend rights of guardianship and custody according to the nature of the relationship between the child and the father, a matter almost invariably dictated by the attitude and behaviour of the gatekeeper-mother.
Although mischievous agents propose that the high numbers of Irish unmarried fathers neglecting to apply for guardianship is evidence of indifference, the fact is that many fathers, reluctant to initiate legal proceedings that might create a conflict where none exists, tend to leave well alone.
This leads to extreme difficulties when mothers abduct children to other jurisdictions and fathers find themselves bereft of legal standing.
Almost all European countries now make legal provision for the concept of the “de facto family” – which extends legal recognition in situations in which unmarried parents and their children have lived together in quasi-marital situations. This can enable an unmarried father who has no formal guardianship order to invoke the Hague Convention in the event that his child is abducted. Irish law is noticeably out of step in the recognition of such “inchoate rights”.
The man in the street may attribute this circumstance to oversight. Alas, it arises from the ideological outlook of the Irish State, which is determined to withhold from unmarried fathers anything but the most minimal recognition forced upon it by international law.
The lay person, too, might surmise that, all things being equal, the objective of the Irish State will always be to strive towards just and equitable resolutions, subject only to whatever legal impediments may arise.
Alas, in abduction situations where the abductor is the mother, such an assumption would be mistaken.
In fact, the pattern of behaviour by the Irish central authority in these matters – ie the Department of Justice – is to turn its back on fathers whose children have been abducted, even when the destination country is reluctant to accept jurisdiction.
This policy became clear over the past 18 months, in a case arising from the refusal of a mother to bring her two children back to Ireland after a summer holiday in New York. For six years the father had lived in Ireland with his children, in virtually every respect as though married to the mother. In August 2010, the mother told him she and their two children would remain in New York, where she was moving in with a man she had met on Facebook.
The children had been born in New York, which meant that the father was their legal guardian under US law. He had the right to apply to a New York court, but felt that to do so would be to acquiesce in what had happened.
He wished to have the matter adjudicated in Ireland, where his children had lived almost all their lives. He approached the Department of Justice but was told that, since he did not have guardianship here, there was no legal recourse under the Hague Convention.
Proceedings were initiated in New York by the mother, while the father began seeking guardianship under Irish law. In November 2010, he was granted a guardianship order. Because this application was initiated within a statutory six-month period stipulated by New York law – in effect confirming the children were for legal purposes still habitually resident in Ireland – and since the father continued to reside here, the New York court ruled that the case should be determined by the Irish courts.
All that was required was for an Irish court to issue a temporary custody order in favour of the father, and the New York court could have ordered the return of the children here.
The next step was to persuade the Irish court to do the decent thing. Three hearings, in August, October and November 2011, were adjourned in turn because the judge was away. Although it was implicit in the New York decision that, by issuing a guardianship order, the Irish court had already accepted jurisdiction, the Irish judge refused to communicate with his counterpart in New York.
Instead, in the end, he wrote to the New York court handing over jurisdiction, unwittingly confirming that, contrary to the assertions of the Department of Justice, the Irish court already had jurisdiction. Thus, in December, this Irish father was forced to surrender to the jurisdiction of an American court.
These Irish proceedings, involving 12 court appearances and nine different judges over 15 months, cost this father more than €20,000.
For years I have been meeting men like this, trying to help them deal with the inscrutable processes that “legal advice” forbids me from describing in the only terms I can adequately and reasonably describe them.
I observe with dismay that things are growing worse, not just in the treatment of such men and their children, but even more ominously in the studied avoidance of these matters by other journalists who make much of calling authority to account except here, where the sleep of justice is more implacable than anywhere else.