Age of Majority Bill, 1984: Second Stage (Resumed).

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

As one who has called on a number of occasions for this legislation, I welcome its introduction. The Bill proposes to give to young people the kind of recognition that is commensurate with the responsibilities placed on them. I have in mind especially young people who marry and wish to enter into a contract with a building society for a mortgage and who also wish to enter into various other legal agreements. I have had representations from numerous couples who found themselves in that situation. It was not logical that, though entitled to vote and so on, they could not enter into these legal agreements without the consent of a parent or guardian.

Another area in which these minors very often found difficulty was in relation to joining the Defence Forces. If they did not have the consent of a parent or guardian in this they could be discharged subsequently on the application of a parent or guardian.

The Bill proposes to deal with all of these problems to which so many of us have drawn attention in the past. We must take into account the input of these young people to society and also the numbers concerned.

Normally a couple over the age of 21 would have no difficulty in obtaining a mortgage so long as they fulfilled the requirements as to employment income levels and so on but under the age of majority they could not enter into such an arrangement. In some cases not even securities would be sufficient. This resulted in many young couples having to live in housing that was unfit pending their being housed by the local authority. That meant very often that people would have to live in mobile homes for up to two or three years or until they reached the age of majority. During that time their marriages were subjected to great stress and their health as well as the health in many cases of one or two very young children would suffer.

It is worth pointing out also that the State suffered financially because these people would be in a position to help themselves if it were not for the regulation governing the age of majority. Therefore, this Bill is a major step forward. I would have much preferred that it had been before the House two years ago but one must have regard to constraints on business and so on. I congratulate the Minister on bringing the Bill before us now.

In a constituency like mine the difficulty that I have outlined in regard to joining the Defence Forces is often encountered. The provision for an amendment of section 76 of the Defence Act, 1954, in section 5 of this Bill deals with that matter. I do not want to deal with it in great detail. Paragraph 6 of the Explanatory Memorandum states:

Section 76 of the 1954 Act prescribes a procedure whereby a person under 18 years of age who enlists in the Defence Forces without the written consent of his parent may be discharged on the application of the parent. In view of the proposal (section 2) that a married person who is under the age of 18 years will be of full age, it is proposed that section 76 of the 1954 Act should not apply to such a person.

Couples under the age of 18 years who are married will achieve the same status, that is, full age.

Life can be unpredictable for young people. The traumas, responsibilities and pressures of modern living affect young people more so than anyone else. It is laudable that we should bring in legislation which will give them the recognition that other adults have. Young people pay PAYE and PRSI and it is only right to give them full recognition. This Bill will be the first step towards giving them the status they deserve as a result of the input they make to society.

Another area this Bill will affect is employment and the age at which a person can command a full wage. When people are allowed to marry and enter into legal agreements they should be able to command a full wage to meet their commitments. I am sure some of the legal eagles in the House will have interesting submissions to make in relation to the effect of the Bill on wills and so on. I hope the Bill is sufficiently detailed to allow them to give a clear indication of it. There were instances in the past where legislation was passed which created a great deal of difficulty as far as legal interpretation was concerned. I do not say that as a criticism of anyone but merely to point out the problems that can arise.

I have already mentioned the areas of housing, mortgages and so on. As regards hire purchase agreements, young people will now be able to undertake responsibilities which heretofore they could not without their parent's or guardian's approval. I hope young people will not be lulled into false security and enter into financial arrangements which might not be in their best interests. That is an aspect that worries me.

Persons under 18 years may be married and they require all the help and assistance that can be given to them. With all the pressures on them it would take a great deal of advice and persuasion to ensure that they did not allow themselves to be coerced or cajoled into making financial agreements which would be detrimental to them. People are getting married at a younger age now. When a person has a job and has to face up to the responsibility of running a household, it is only reasonable to give him the benefits of the trappings of our society and ensure he is given every support and encouragement. Legislation such as this will have the effect of doing just that. I welcome the Bill. It is a constructive proposal which will update existing legislation and meet the requirements of our modern age. It will give young people the recognition that their contribution to society deserves. In one area at least we are doing more than paying lip service to the importance of our young population. More than 50 per cent of our population are in the younger age group. We will accord that group a new status, which is laudable. I hope it will prove to be worthwhile and that they will find it rewarding. I thank the Minister for bringing in the Bill. I am sure every Member has had experience of young people having to sit and wait for years in unfit housing conditions until they reached the age of majority in order to take out a loan and house themselves and their families.

This measure was badly needed. It will eliminate many of the problems we have had. The age of majority for a person who wishes to be married will be reduced from 21 years to 18 years. This Bill will have unanimous support. Very few matters have been as controversial over the last number of years. I am a member of Monaghan County Council and, on many occasions, we put down motions recommending that legislation should be introduced to enable young people to avail of their rights. Since the voting age was reduced to 18 many young people were resentful that the age of majority was not similarly reduced. They felt that although they were paying substantial taxes they were unable to avail of loan facilities which were available to people aged 21 years and over. I know a couple who applied for a house loan. The person in whose name the application was is only 19 years of age and I found it very hard to convince him that he was not eligible for a loan. I told him that it was a matter which needed to be dealt with by legislation but he could not understand that although he was working and paying taxes Monaghan County Council would not give him loan facilities which they would offer to a person who was a few years older.

The Minister said that existing legislation protected people from their own improvidence and inexperience but when we see the responsibilities of young people of 16, 17 or 18 years of age, it is time the age of majority was reduced. This is desirable legislation and will be well received.

I join with other Members in welcoming this legislation which has been required for many years. Deputy Woods made interesting and constructive comments but he made one remark, which I found humourous, about legislation being rushed into the House. I find it very difficult to regard this as rushed legislation considering that the Law Reform Commission produced their working paper on this legislation in 1977. I know they did not produce their final report until 1983 but it is not very different from the working paper and, as other speakers have said, the Law Reform Commission did valuable work on this issue.

Many young people find it hard to understand how slow politicians have been to respond to the needs of law reform in this area. Very few people who are going to be affected by this legislation would regard it as coming before the House with any undue speed. Indeed it is a criticism of how the House operates. That is not criticism directed at any one Government but we are extremely slow in tackling areas of law reform. There has been justifiable praise of the work of the Law Reform Commission in this context but one must ask why it took so long to produce their final working paper on this issue. Nevertheless, I welcome the fact that this Bill is now before the House.

In case someone is not too clear about what I said, I was speaking about the other report being available in three or four weeks and, therefore, being able to join consent with it and being rushed in that sense only.

I was going to say that Deputy Woods was really talking in the context of the Joint Committee on Marriage Breakdown and that we are supposed to complete our work by 1 December. The Law Reform Commission, in their working paper and in their final recommendations discussed the whole question of the minimum age of marriage and to what extent that should be reformed. The Minister this morning indicated that this was a matter which should be left over until the Joint Committee on Marriage Breakdown publish their report. I can see the Minister's difficulties; there is no doubt that there is an overwhelming need to deal with all the issues relating to reforming the law concerning the age of majority. I imagine that if this Bill when originally published had contained provisions relating to the age of marriage, the opposite criticism would have been made of the Minister. He could then have been accused of pre-empting the work of the committee. If he excluded the law relating to marriage from the Age of Majority Bill he was open to criticism that he really should deal with it and take into account not merely what the Law Reform Commission said but also what has been largely agreed within the committee and of pre-empting the work of that committed.

I join with Deputy Woods in taking the view that this legislation provides a unique opportunity to deal with the problems relating to the age of marriage. It is quite usual for amendments to be tabled on Committee Stage to deal with different aspects of matters directly related to the legislation contained in the original Bill. I hope that on Committee Stage we can insert an appropriate amendment to deal with the law relating to the age of marriage. I express that as a hope because, having been in this House since 1981, one sees how frustratingly long it takes to produce legislation relating to any aspect of law reform. I am afraid that if we do not avail of the opportunity of dealing with the age for marriage and reform in that area in the context of this Bill we may wait another two or three years before any legislation appears to deal with that issue no matter what the Joint Committee on Marriage Breakdown say in that regard.

There is no public controversy about the need to raise the minimum age for marriage. Very few people take the view that it is appropriate to allow persons under 16 years of age to marry in any circumstances even when they apply to the court. It is interesting to note that that facility is largely unavailed of. Statistics published by the Law Reform Commission in their final report showed that in the period from 1978 to 1982 there were only 16 applications from people under 16 years of age to the High Clurt seeking permission to marry. Permission was granted in only ten of those cases. There is no over-riding public pressure or interest in maintaining the legal situation to allow people under 16 years of age to marry. The Law Reform Commission did a great service in the work that they did and they looked at the matter in great detail. There is an excellent appendix to their working paper produced by Dr. Helen Bourke dealing with the sociological aspects. The point is well made and research has established that marriages of very young people are more at risk than marriages between people in an older age group.

It is now generally accepted that 18 years should be the minimum age for marriage. I do not think a single written submission or oral submission was received by the Joint Committee on Marriage Breakdown during all the work we have done since our establishment in which anyone suggested 16 years should be preserved as the age at which people can marry. Virtually unanimously all groups who made submissions to us right across the social spectrum, and the religious spectrum, joined in recommending that 18 years should be the minimum age for marriage. The only matter which arose for debate was whether in any circumstances people between the ages of 16 and 18 years should be allowed to marry. There was a general concensus view that people over 18 years should be allowed to marry without the necessity for parental consent and that, as a general rule, people under 18 years of age should not be allowed to marry.

The only other view which has arisen is that perhaps, in some circumstances, people under 18 years and above 16 years should be allowed to marry. The Law Reform Commission suggested conditions which should be attached to that. The Committee on Marriage Breakdown have virtually finalised their recommendations on proposals in this area. They have been widely published. Effectively they are that normally persons between 16 and 18 years should not be allowed to marry without the consent of both parents and the consent of the court, be it a family court when it is established ultimately, or in the intervening period by the President of the High Court.

I urge the Minister to adopt those recommendations on Committee Stage. It is in the interest of the protection of marriage and of ensuring that people who enter into marriage have some opportunity to think out the relationship which they are entering into. It is also necessary for the protection of young people. Under the current law, people from 16 years upwards can marry, provided they have parental consent. From the research done on this, one of the major areas, particularly in the 16 to 18 years age group, and particularly in relation to young girls, where parental consent is forthcoming for marriage is where the girl is pregnant.

The second thing which has been learned in this area is that marriages of young people are at risk. The marriage of a young person who marries due to pregnancy is very greatly at risk as a long term stable marriage. It is in the interests of young people between 16 and 18 years that we reform the law in this area, and that they should not be subject to possible pressure from parents requiring them to marry, in a sense to ensure that the neighbours will not find out that an unwanted or unexpected pregnancy has arisen in the context of a young unmarried girl.

I very strongly urge the Minister to do this. I welcome the fact that Deputy Woods adopted the approach which he adopted this morning. It indicates that there is agreement right across party lines that this matter should be tackled and dealt with in this Bill. I welcome the fact that Deputy Woods did not suggest that, if it was dealt with in this Bill, it would be in any way pre-empting the work of the Committee on Marriage Breakdown. It would be seen as an immediate and rapid response to the gigantic task undertaken by the committee if, within a week or two of the committee finalising their report and even in the context of completing their work, this Government were to be seen to adopt one of the recommendations made. This Bill provides the ideal vehicle for doing that. I urge that strongly on the Minister. I welcome the fact that Deputy Woods similarly urged the Minister to deal with this issue on Committee Stage.

Other aspects of the Bill are very welcome. The previous speaker made a point about the difficulties experienced by young married people of 18 or 19 years of age in acquiring loans for the purchase of a family home from a local authority or a building society. This Bill will enable property to be purchased in joint names by young couples when they marry. It will remove the illogical legal impediment which has been there, and which was originally created to protect young people. For the past two decades it has been seen as a major impediment and effectively discriminating against them when they sought housing loans from local authorities, or banks, or building societies. It is to be welcomed that we are dealing with this. My only regret is that it was not dealt with many years ago. At least we are dealing with it now.

The other areas I am concerned about in the Bill — and I do not wish to go on at any great length, or to repeat what other Deputies said — are the provisions of the Bill relating to custody and maintenance to which the Minister referred briefly. The Bill seeks to provide uniformity in the sense of making 18 years the age of majority and in saying that, where legislation refers to the age of majority, or full age, or infancy, or minors, or minority, or whatever, people will cease to be regarded as being minors, or infants, once they reach the age of 18 years.

The legislation also effectively states that where in any legislation there is reference to the age of 21 years, such provision in future will be interpreted as if it were 18 years. It goes on to make a number of exceptions to that. It refers to the Marriages Act which relates in a sense to the issue I referred to previously, the age for marriage. It goes on to allow adoption orders to continue to be made in relation to people between the ages of 18 and 21 years. It deals with income tax and social welfare legislation.

I am particularly concerned about one aspect of the legislation and it is my hope that, on Committee Stage, the Minister will seek to deal with this issue and bring in an appropriate amendment to the Bill. An amendment in this area is virtually essential. The Minister referred to the Law Reform Commission's proposals. He said:

Other proposals of the Law Reform Commission which are being left over for another day are those relating to an increase from 16 to 18 as the age up to which parents can be obliged to maintain a child under the Illegitimate Children (Affiliation Orders) Act, 1930, and the Family Law (Maintenance of Spouses and Children) Act, 1976, and as the age at which a parent ceases to be liable to maintain a child for the purposes of social welfare legislation. These proposals are not directly related to a reduction in the age of majority and will be dealt with separately.

The problem is that they are not dealt with separately. They are being dealt with in this legislation. I do not believe the consequences of the manner in which they are being dealt with in this legislation are fully appreciated. The Minister is correct in saying that, under the Maintenance Act, the Guardianship of Infants Act, 1964, and the Family Law (Maintenance of Spouses and Children) Act, 1976, where there is a dispute between a married couple as to whether a parent is properly supporting a child — more usually it is a wife seeking support from a husband for a child — the child should be supported or a maintenance order made by the court should remain in force until the child attains the age of 16 years. That is not the end of the story in the context of married couples. From what the Minister said, it would appear as if that were the case.

The position is that maintenance orders made for the support of children under the Guardianship of Infants Act, 1964, can continue in force under the existing law until children attain the age of 21 years. There is no qualification to that. Under that Act a maintenance order can be made for the support of a child until that child attains the age of 21 years. Under the 1976 legislation, a maintenance order made for the support of a child will continue after the child is 16 years of age, if the child continues to participate in a full time course of education or instruction, either at second level or at third level.

The real effect of the legislation at present is that, by and large, maintenance orders made by the courts for the support of children normally remain in force unless a child completes his education and commences full time employment. A maintenance order will normally remain in force under the existing law until the child attains at least the age of 18 years. If the child goes on to third level education it will remain in force until the child attains the age of 21 years.

Under the Guardianship of Infants Act, 1964, where a couple are living apart, where a marriage has broken down, and money is required for the support of a child going into third level education, and where the money sought relates not merely to the every day maintenance of the child, but also to the need to require, for example, a wealthy father, or a father who can afford to do so to contribute to university fees the father can be required to pay university fees or fees for other types of third level education. The effect of this Bill, as currently drafted — because it does not exclude the provision of the Guardianship of Infants Act and the Family Law Act in the manner in which it excludes other legislation such as the Marriages (Ireland) Act and the Adoption Acts — would be, on the day it came into force, to wipe out overnight the maintenance rights entitlement of all children over the age of 18 years. It could, in effect, wipe out the right of a deserted wife, through the courts, to require her husband to pay third level education fees for a child over 18 participating in third level education or, if a child of that age were still in secondary school, could put the wife in a position where there were school fees to be paid and she could not require the father to make those payments either.

The position is not as it is being perceived to date. I would press extremely strongly for a substantial amendment to be made to the legislation in this area. It must be realised that there is a total difference between the concept of somebody attaining the age of majority and of somebody retaining financial dependency. It is acknowledged under existing family law that either a husband or wife may be financially dependent until the day he or she dies. The fact that a youngster attains the magical age of 18 years one day will not make him or her any less financially dependent than at the age of 17 years and 11 months.

Many hundreds of maintenance orders are made annually, largely against husbands, to require them to support children over the age of 18 years and there must, at this stage, be many thousands of such orders in existence. The people who would suffer if the appropriate amendment were not made to the legislation would, firstly, be children of broken marriages because where a marriage is functioning properly and a parent can afford to support the child or pay third level education fees, they are paid. Normally there is no problem about that. With a broken marriage, very often the deserting husband, for example, is not willing to make any more money available to his family than he is forced to make available by the courts. Rights available to young people since 1964 when the Guardianship of Infants Act came into force would be wiped out in one stroke.

There is no need to confuse the concept of attaining the age of majority with the notion of financial dependency. We have not confused the desirability of allowing adoption orders to be made in respect of young people until they attain the age of 21. It seems somewhat inconsistent that someone between the ages of 18 and 21 would be allowed to be adopted but in the context of a broken marriage a parent would not be required to support a dependent young person between the ages of 18 and 21. Many people would wish to seek reassurance from the Minister that this aspect of the legislation will be amended. It would create a great deal of concern on the part of many if the necessity to amend the original drafting of the Bill to deal with this issue were not recognised. In doing that, I would urge the Minister not simply to amend it to provide a re-instatement of the current provision that maintenance can be cut off at the age of 21 years, but to look at what is being done in other jurisdictions. In other countries, for example, it is acknowledged that a young person might be involved in third level education of an undergraduate nature until the age of 21½ or 22 years, or slightly older. Where finances permit, the courts are given a discretion to order a parent to contribute towards the support of a dependent young person until such age as is appropriate, with a cut-off date which takes into account the normal age at which people would complete undergraduate education. This is not suggesting that the court should impose a permanent meal ticket or require parents permanently to support children until they reach the age of 40, 50 or 60. In marital breakdown, the age of 21 has been seen in practice to be the wrong cut-off age — 22½ years is about right.

It should be said that with one exception the Minister has, in the existing legislation and in the context of the Guardianship of Infants Act, 1964, sought to make it coincide with the 1976 Family Law Act where if someone is so physically or mentally disabled as to remain dependent and unable to obtain employment, he or she would continue to be maintained by the parents. This is a vital and important area for many thousands of children. It would be an area of great concern to many thousands of wives who are dependent on maintenance orders and who could experience severe financial difficulty. Without over-exaggerating, if this aspect of the legislation were not to be amended it could place in serious jeopardy the rights of many young people to participate in third level education, by virtue of the fact that they happened to be children of parents whose marriage had, unfortunately, broken down.

The problem in dealing with legislation of this nature is to have a coherent overview of how it will affect individuals. One further argument in support of the amendment I am seeking is that with any young person at present seeking a grant to participate in third level education, the entitlement to obtain such a grant is judged on the financial earnings of the parents. Whether the parents are living together or separated, by and large the dominant feature is how much is being earned by the husband or the wife in determining whether the young person will qualify for a grant, taken together with the points system and results achieved by the children in, for example, leaving certificate examinations. It would be somewhat anomalous to disqualify somebody from being entitled to a third level education grant by virtue of the fact that both parents have a particular income which is too high and then to prevent the child from requiring the parent whose income has disqualified the child from getting a grant to contribute towards his participation in third level education. I have no doubt that the Minister will consider this matter very sympathetically. I sincerely hope he will. I hope that whatever advice is forthcoming to him from his Department on this issue will confirm that the position is as I state and that whatever steps are necessary now to draft an appropriate amendment to deal with this issue will be taken.

So far I have dealt with the effect in the context of married couples whose marriages have broken down and the financial supports which are currently made available for children of such marriages. This equally applies to unmarried mothers. The legislation also seeks to cut off the time at which a father can be required to contribute towards the support of an illegitimate child. As the law stands, the child born outside marriage is, in effect, in the same position as one born in marriage. Once the courts have made an affiliation order, a father can be required to contribute towards that child's support until the child attains the age of 16 years or, if the child continues to participate in a full time course of education or instruction, until he or she attains the age of 21 years. This legislation, as currently drafted, will cut down the age from 21 to 18 years and could equally have a dramatic effect on the future lives and prospects of a number of children whose mothers depend on affiliation payments as a contribution towards the support, maintenance and education of such children between the ages of 18 and 21 years.

This is not a minor problem which will affect only a small number of people. If this aspect of the legislation is not amended it will have a dramatic effect on the life-styles and future prospects of a large number of young people who are unfortunate enough to come from homes broken up due to marriage breakdown or to be born outside marriage. I hope that the Minister will bring in the required amendments to this legislation and thus confirm our concern and show the extent to which this House is anxious to ensure that any assistance or support required is available to deal with the financial problem which arises following on marital breakdown.

I am sorry that I have gone on so long on that issue, but I feel extremely strongly about it. I hope that the Minister will take my comments as constructive. He is to be congratulated on producing this Bill. I hope that he will provide for the two areas of amendments that I have referred to. His predecessors in the past and many Government Ministers of different Departments over the years have waxed lyrical about the need to produce legislation to reform the whole law in relation to the age of majority. The Minister has come into this House after a lengthy debate on the Criminal Justice Bill to steer through this Bill which is of major importance to many young people.

I join in the welcome for this Bill. Its general acceptance in the House is clear and I hope that it will have an easy passage through the House.

The Bill does not do certain things. Despite the fact that it proposes to amend the age of majority, it does not give persons aged 18 the right to run for parliamentary elections, because that would require a constitutional amendment. The Constitution provides that persons of 21 years or more may be candidates for the Dáil. People who are 18 years of age can vote for candidates for the Dáil, pay their taxes, be married, and enter into almost every other contract under this legislation, but they cannot be candidates for this Parliament. Considering that half the population of the country is deemed to be under the age of 25, then a huge number of people in Dublin, for instance, cannot elect one of their peers to the Dáil if they so wish. I am not saying that the demand for that would be great, but people should have the opportunity to elect persons aged 18. If we can say that people of that age are capable of entering into all of these contracts and that they reach the age of majority at 18, we should go the full way and amend the Constitution so that the person of 18 can run for parliamentary elections. I hope the Minister will bear that in mind when next we have a referendum.

I want to refer to the ridiculous possibility of people marrying at the age of 16. A colleague informed me recently that in an area of his constituency something like 25 per cent of the people are single parent families. That relates largely to an argument which I suppose we will make under another Bill in a few weeks time. Such people see it as proper that they can enter into that sort of relationship because the law states that in certain circumstances people of 16 years of age can be married. I do not believe that the general public accept the age of 16 as being in any way reasonable for that and the House feels strongly that 16 is far too young and that the age of majority would be much more reasonable to apply in the case of marriage. I can say that Dublin Deputies at any rate are consulted in their clinics by a large number of deserted wives, girls who have married young or entered into common law marriages when they were young because that seemed acceptable. It is time that we set some standard which would be more acceptable than the age of 16 and probably 18, the age of majority, meets that standard.

The Bill, as stated in section 2(3), does not extend the age of 18 to all areas of legislation. For instance, under tax law if a parent covenants to pay his or her son or daughter a fixed amount of money, that sum can be deducted from that parent's tax liability if the person attending third level education is over 21 years of age. Many people who have tried to introduce a covenant have been told, "Sorry, your son or daughter is only 19 or 20. You cannot introduce a covenant because your child must be over 21." Perhaps many people feel that with the passing of this Bill they will now be able to enter into this covenant relationship for tax purposes. That is not the case. Under existing law in the area of social welfare and income tax the age of majority is not the age which applies. The age in such cases is 21 or over, and that position will remain. That is worth stating clearly because many people may feel that they can enter into tax arrangements with their children who are at third level education which they could not heretofore enter into. That is not the case. This law does not provide for that. Perhaps now that we are setting 18 as the age of majority we can recommend to the Minister for Finance and the Minister for Social Welfare that they both review the age clauses in various social welfare and taxation Bills or Acts as they relate to persons of 21 years or over.

Public representatives are encountering all the time the problems with the current arrangements. For instance, a married couple under the age of majority cannot enter into hire purchase agreements in most cases, yet we have allowed them by law to enter into the contract of marriage, probably the biggest single agreement they will ever make. That is appalling. Also, where one of the partners is under 21 years the right to obtain Housing Finance Agency loans or normal SDA loans from local authorities is affected. I take it from the Bill that there is an express provision that this will no longer apply, and that the age of 18 will apply for such loans.

The Bill states that the term "infant" is being redefined or extended. I hope that at the other end of the scale a person described as an infant will also get the necessary protection under the Children Bills which are now overdue. I hope that in dealing with this Age of Majority Bill and redefining the term "infant" we will soon be in a position to deal with the term "infant" as it applies to children, and that that Children Bill will be before the House without further delay.

Parents of infants or persons under a stated age have a certain responsibility in law. Take, for instance, a parent who is selling goods from a stall in a public place and who should not be selling those goods. If the child of that parent is doing the same thing then the Garda can prosecute the parent for the child's act.

That is one of the few situations where another party can be held responsible for the acts of a son or daughter. This area relates definitely to the Minister for Justice. There is a growing view that where people are under the age of majority and are regular offenders committing similar crimes daily under the criminal law, the parents of such persons should be held accountable. There should be a provision whereby parents can be brought to court and told, "it is not just your children that are the problem; you are not exercising your parental responsibilities for a minor". Since there is a provision for prosecuting where people sell in a public place we should be able to extend that principle to other areas so that minors who are habitual offenders can be brought before the courts with their parents and their parents asked to account for their responsibility in regard to the crimes committed. I hope the Minister takes that suggestion on board. I welcome the Bill and I hope it is given a quick passage through the House. I congratulate the Minister on bringing it before the House so soon bearing in mind the very heavy legislative timetable he has had to deal with.

I have not had an opportunity of reading the Minister's speech but I should like to make a few comments on the legislation before us. It calls for a degree of analysis as to why the disabilities, as they may seem to be, on people between the ages of 18 and 21 are long established in the law. The reality is that these were not introduced as disabilities. In fact, they were introduced as protections for minors. There are some notable examples, even in our current law, which we would do well to note as we change to keep abreast, and properly so, of current trends. We must reflect on the fact that some of the protections that exist in the law for those under 21 will not be there in the future. I am not saying that that in any way cuts across the major impact of the Bill but it would be well to bring some cases to mind. It is well that the House, and the public, should have a broad awareness of the impact of any change. Not all of what is established is wrong or all that will be introduced will be in support or in ease of the position of the minority group.

I should like to give some examples. In law cases at present any person under 21 has to bring the action in the name of what is called the next friend, notably the parent or nearest relative. On the face of it that may seem to be a disability but it is meant to be a protection. In the normal case settlements at law can be concluded on behalf of an adult without the consent of a court but the court has a special function in relation to a person under 21. The function of the court is that it must approve of any settlement reached between a minor under 21 and the other party to litigation. That was introduced and is practised as a protection for the minor. There have been cases where courts have refused to sanction settlements that would otherwise not come before the court for approval. I am familiar with many such cases. It is just as well that we at least take note of that and try to consider if there may be some scope in some instances — I must acknowledge that I am not in a position to detail them now because I had hoped to delay my contribution to later — where that protection might still be applied.

In traditional legal arrangements in respect of people under 21 there is a whole body of the law that says that where they enter into contracts of service, or otherwise, and if they are not clearly in the interests of the minor they may be annulled and the courts may not implement the effects of the contracts because one of the parties was a minor. The leading case in this regard concerned a man who was known as the Georgeous Gael, Jack Doyle, a rather colourful character, entertainer, boxer and wrestler who signed a contract as a minor. Being the type of character he was he might not always have been available to fulfil the exact terms of his contract. A major case took place in the British courts in which it was found that it was important to protect the minor, as he was at that time.

I am sure the Minister's advisers have looked into this matter. This could apply in relation to anything dealing with the dissolution of marriage. I do not wish to get involved in that issue now but sometimes the existing pattern would be in favour, as it appears to be in terms of court decisions or separation deeds, of the female partnervis-à-vis the male partner in marriage and under a new operation of the law as we move progressively, and there is need for that, each partner should be treated equally. Each partner should have equal capacity, knowledge, and obligation, obligation being the other balance of right. Sometimes one finds that rights that accrue under what would seem to be a more enlightened climate would be more evenly balanced. The trend heretofore as defined in the law will not necessarily always operate to the advantage of the person or persons we now propose to help.

I am supporting the Minister's proposals but we must recognise the points I have made. The law after all reflects the climate of the time. It was not introduced at any time for frivolous reasons. Constitutional arrangements or otherwise always reflected the character of the time. This major change is one of the recommendations of the commission who were familiar with many of the matters I mentioned. I hope an open mind is kept on the operation of the provisions as they emerge under the Bill when it is passed. It may be necessary to consider if the established protections in respect of infants are still necessary in respect of those between 18 and 21, or a younger age in the event of either of the two getting married before 18. That is the only comment I have to make and it has not been made by way of any negative criticism of what the Minister is proposing and which no doubt the House will support. Nonetheless I should like the House to be aware that there will be consequences on any change of this nature that perhaps might not be fully envisaged.

Although the Brehon laws seemed to recognise that a child required some legal protection, the concept of a fixed age at which a person could attain maturity apparently was not known at that time. For example, normally a son had no power to make a binding contract during the lifetime of his father and while he was a member of his father's household. After the Norman invasion in the 12th century those invaders began to impose their system of law on this country. Several hundreds of years elapsed before the English common law system, as supplemented by statute law, effectively became the law throughout the land. The common law treated a person under 21 years of age as a minor and gave such a person special status.

As the Minister said this morning, the law acted on the principle that a minor should be protected from his improvidence and inexperience but that this should be done so as not to cause unnecessary hardship to any person dealing with a minor. With the passage of time, statutes altered the legal position of minors. Some of the more notable of these statutes were, for example, the industrial and provident Act of 1883, which permitted a person between the ages of 16 and 21 to become a member of a registered society unless there was provision in the rules of that society to the contrary. While such a person could enjoy all the rights of membership of that society, nevertheless a person under the age of 21 could not become a member of the committee, a trustee, manager or treasurer of that society.

Then the Friendly Societies' Acts of 1896 and 1908 enabled the rules of a friendly society to provide for the admission as a member of a person under the age of 21, that a person over 16 years of age could execute all assignments but — as in case of the industrial and provident Act of 1883 — he could not become a member of the committee, be a trustee, manager or treasurer of the society.

The Credit Union Act of 1966 applied the provisions of that industrial and provident Act to credit unions. It should be noted that nothing in those three Acts gave a minor the power to do anything that he could not otherwise do. For instance, he could not borrow money from such a society or union and he could not contract for the repayment of borrowed money or give security for it. These actions on behalf of a minor are invalidated by the infants' relief Act of 1874. It should be said that, since the enactment of the Succession Act, 1965, a person who is of sound mind and has attained the age of 18 years or has been married is authorised or eligible to make a will. The Referendum (Amendment) Act, 1972, dealt with the referendum in relation to the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution Act, 1972. This amendment of the Constitution reduced from 21 to 18 the age at which a person had the right to vote in Dáil and Presidential elections and referenda. Following the passage of that referendum an 18 year old had the right to vote in elections and referenda and to be a member of a local authority. Their eligibility for membership of Dáil Éireann still remains at age 21. Moreover, to be eligible for membership of Seanad Éireann a person must be eligible for membership of Dáil Éireann.

The Juries' Act, 1976 reduced the minimum age limit for jury service in a court or a coroner's inquest to 18 years. The common law rule, that a person does not attain majority until 21, applied in England as it does here. However, in July 1965 a committee was appointed there to consider whether any changes in the law relating to contracts entered into by persons under the age of 21 were desirable. That committee's report was presented to the British Parliament in July 1967 and recommended that the historical causes for fixing 21 years as the age of majority were not relevant to contemporary society and recommended that the age of majority be reduced to 18 years. That recommendation was accepted and, on 1 January 1970, the age of majority there was reduced from 21 to 18 years.

In 1970 the European Committee on Legal Co-operation established a committee of experts to consider the question of the age of full capacity. Following examination of their report a resolution was passed recommending that Governments of member states should lower the age of majority to below 21 years and, if they deemed it advisable, to fix that age at 18.

I want now to refer to something Deputy Shatter had to say because that European committee made a very interesting recommendation. The recommendation was that the Governments of member states should take appropriate remedial measures where the lowering of age of majority would substantially curtail the rights of children to be maintained by their parents with the possible consequences of depriving them of the necessary assistance for pursuing their education or training. Since that resolution was passed, Denmark, France, the Federal Republic of Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and Sweden have reduced the age of majority to 18. The question then posed was, should the law in Ireland be changed?

The Law Reform Commission Working Paper No. 2 of 1977 examined the situation. They advertised in the press requesting any person who had views on the law relating to the age of majority to communicate those views to them. In a submission to the Law Reform Commission Cork County Council were concerned particularly with the desirability of reducing the age of majority so that persons under the age of 21 could become legally entitled to avail of house purchase loans. All of us who are members of local authorities have been confronted with this problem from time to time because in recent years there has been an increase in the number of people who have married before reaching the age of 21. This occasions many serious problems, for example, in relation to their inability to obtain a mortgage from a building society or a house purchase loan from a local authority. I am most pleased that the provisions of this Bill rectify that situation.

A submission from the Department of Agriculture to the Law Reform Commission favoured a reduction in the age of majority to 18 years. The view expressed was that if the age of majority was to be reduced to 18 lending agencies would be more readily prepared to give credit to young farmers at an earlier age. At present a progressive farmer under 21 years of age is unable to implement farm development programmes or be eligible to avail of the provisions of the farm modernisation scheme simply because lending agencies will not consider making a loan to him. Furthermore, the inability of a young farmer to obtain a loan because he is a minor may tend to frustrate the desire of other, older farmers, to pass on their farms to their successors at a younger age than had been customary.

The Irish League of Credit Unions in their submissions stated that they should like to see a reduction in the age of majority to 18 years, mainly to allow young people take a more active part in the administration of credit unions. They argued that persons under the age of 21 are interested in community affairs, displaying an ability and sense of responsibility to warrant their participation in decision making.

In their submission, FLAC contended that a reduction in the age of majority to 18 years would be beneficial to everybody and suggested it would prevent young people hiding behind their special status as infants. The National Youth Council also favoured a reduction in the age of majority to 18, their views being based on answers they received following the circulation of questionnaires to their members.

The present Bill formally recognises the fact that, generally speaking, an 18 year old person of this generation is as mature and responsible as was the 21 year old of past generations. An endeavour to explain how this came about would necessitate a discussion of the social, educational and technological revolutions of recent decades. Young people in Ireland between the ages of 18 and 21 no longer will feel at a disadvantage in comparison with their counterparts in Northern Ireland where the age of majority was reduced in 1969. That in itself, underlines the fact that this Bill is long overdue.

The immediate effect of the Bill will be the opening of the commercial world to those aged between 18 and 21 who will no longer require a guarantor to give legal effect to their contracts. No longer will we have the situation where an 18 year old could join the Army but could not buy a toy gun on credit; where he could obtain a driving licence but could not buy a car or even a bicycle on hire purchase without a guarantor; or where he could get married but could not buy a kitchen table by deferred payments. Under this Bill a person aged 18 can be termed a new adult and will be liable for the payment of any money he may borrow for goods. He may also take out a mortgage or make a hire purchase agreement. He will be free to make settlements on his property. He will be free to buy and sell land and to give valid receipts without the intervention of a trustee or a third person. He will be entitled to act on the committee of a trade union or any such body. He may enter into binding contracts for the repayment of money and may marry without the consent of his parents or guardian or the consent of the President of the High Court. He may be sued or sue in his own name.

Some people who will benefit from the Bill may feel that wonderful avenues of opportunity are being opened up to them by the removal of various restrictions which previously applied. It would be unfair not to point out that their rights will be balanced by duties and responsibilities which they will also acquire. They will find that they can buy motor cars but that an 18 year old driver who crashes his car may be sued in his own name. If he fails to pay his bills he may find himself in distinguished company inStubbs Gazette and may have the doubtful privilege of being declared a bankrupt. If he acts as a guarantor for some younger person he may find that it involves more than just signing his name.

With all these extra duties and responsibilities falling on the shoulders of those aged between 18 and 21 and having regard for the fact that the voting age was reduced to 18 in 1973, it seems inevitable that this group will seek the right to be elected to the Oireachtas. Unfortunately, one right not being conferred on them as adults is the right of election to Dáil Éireann because the Constitution excludes anybody under the age of 21. It may be worth having a look at other jurisdictions to see their minimum age for entering Parliament. I note that in some of the Canadian provinces, the Federal Republic of Germany, New Zealand and Sweden the minimum age is set at 18. It would appear that there is a well established precedent for allowing people of this age to have a voice in Parliament.

For the past decade our political parties have given a special status to youth in their organisations. While there may be some reluctance to allow 18 year olds to stand as candidates for Dáil Éireann, there is some merit in creating a panel for the election of, say, three young people to the Seanad. The nominating bodies for this panel would be the National Youth Council, the Union of Students in Ireland and other youth bodies. It would require an amendment to the Constitution but this would not create any more difficulty than the previous amendments dealing with the voting age and the voting rights of the universities. It would also be consistent with the proposal to bring young people into greater consultation at a higher level.

I congratulate the Government on updating the present law and I compliment the Minister on the introduction of this Bill.

I support the bringing before the House of this Bill. The Minister and his Department must be complimented on moving in relation to this very important matter. The subject has been under discussion for many years but until today no Government action was taken. I am very pleased that our mid-west Minister is the person who has pioneered this important and progressive legislation.

The main thrust of this Bill is to give legal status to a person aged 18. This is an extremely important measure in this modern age when so many demands are made on young people and so many responsibilities are forced upon them. The Minister in his speech mentioned that one reason for adopting 21 as the age of majority was that it was generally believed that a person of 21 was physically strong enough to wear heavy armour and carry heavy weapons. We may not have to do these things today but much greater weights of responsibility are thrust upon us by modern society. For this reason it is important that the age be reduced.

I speak especially of young people who are setting up home and who are not in a position to raise a local authority loan or a mortgage to purchase their house. Girls are inclined to marry younger than boys and there is a certain discrimination against women because in many cases the name on the deeds of a house has to be the name of the husband only since it is not possible to put the property in joint names because of the age limitation.

The Law Reform Commission carried out much groundwork and examined many submissions. Their final proposals were based on the evidence presented to them. The Minister is today introducing one of those proposals. They also suggested that the age of marriage be reduced and I am very happy that the Minister has not decided to reduce the age of majority and the age of marriage in a combined Bill. It should be clearly stated in this House that marriage is a very important aspect of one's life which must be seen as something separate and definite. It is more in the nature of a social contract than a legal contract. It is necessary to see that difference. For that reason I am happy that the Minister has adopted this approach. However, I hope that the Minister will see fit at a very early date to introduce a Bill to increase the age of marriage from 16 to 18. It is imperative that action be taken on that aspect sooner rather than later. I say this because of legislation which may come before the House shortly.

In Canada, 21 is generally accepted as the age of majority but during the past decade there has been a move to reduce the age.

Debate adjourned.