Limerick East): I move: “That the Bill be now read a Second Time”.
I am glad to be able to bring this measure before the House, I regard it as an important as well as a desirable item of law reform in an area of particular significance for young people.
The main purpose of the Bill is to implement proposals concerning the age of majority that are contained in the Law Reform Commission's report entitled "Report on the Law relating to the Age of Majority, the Age for Marriage and Some Connected Subjects (LRC5-1983)". The commission's central proposal is that the age of majority be reduced from 21 to 18 years or the age at which the person concerned marries.
The commission's recommendations were made after a wide ranging investigation in the course of which they reviewed the law as to the age of majority here, in Britain and in various other countries in Europe and elsewhere. They also received and considered submissions from a wide range of organisations and individuals. The results were published in a Working Paper (No. 2 — 1977) and the commission's final report in the matter was published in April 1983. The report was accompanied by a draft Age of Majority Bill.
Before referring in detail to the provisions of the Bill I would like to pay a special tribute to the Law Reform Commission for the work they have done in the comprehensive review of the subject set out in their working paper and in their final report. Those documents have provided us with a wealth of valuable material and background information on the existing law on the subject and on the implications of making the changes they recommended. The proposals in the Bill are based with only slight modifications on the work of the commission and I am sure that other Members of the House would wish to join me in thanking them.
Before going further, I think I should say something about the concept of "majority". The terms "age of majority" and "full age" are interchangeable and are used to describe the age at which a person reaches full legal capacity, that is, the capacity to exercise all the rights of an individual who is not under a legal disability.
The present age of majority is 21 years, as it has been for centuries. It might be supposed that this resulted from the belief that 21 years was an age at which people could be presumed to be sufficiently mature mentally to assume full responsibility for themselves, but that does not seem to have been the case. The emergence of 21 years appears to have had less to do with mental maturity than with physical strength. There is authority for suggesting that it was related to the age at which a young man was regarded as strong enough to wear the heavy armour and wield the heavy weapons that went with knight service in the feudal system. The selection of any age as an age at which people generally can be regarded as capable of assuming full adult responsibility must of course be arbitrary to some extent but it can be said that the proposal of the Law Reform Commission is supported by the practice of many other countries and by developments in our own law, as I hope to show.
Under the common law a person under 21 was treated as an infant — or minor — and was conferred with a special status, that is infancy or minority which made him subject to certain legal limitations, the most important of these being in his ability to enter into contracts or to own property. The limitations on the legal capacity of a minor were not of course imposed to deprive the minor of his rights — the principle was that a minor should be protected from his own improvidence and inexperience, but that this should be done so as not to cause unnecessary hardship to any person dealing with him.
There has been a general trend throughout the world towards a reduction in the age of majority, particularly in Europe. A resolution of the Council of Europe in 1972 recommended lowering the age of majority below 21 years and suggested 18 as a suitable new age. The age was reduced in Britain and Northern Ireland in 1969 from 21 years to 18 years. Other countries which in recent years have made the same reduction are France, the Federal Republic of Germany, Denmark, Italy, Luxembourg, Sweden and Turkey.
Clearly there is a growing consensus that transcends national boundaries that young people of the present day are capable of managing their own affairs when they reach the age of 18 years. Many young people have already struck out on their own and are supporting themselves away from home by the time they reach 18 years. Moreover, the Law Reform Commission referred at paragraphs 16 and 17 of their report, to Article 41.1 of the Constitution under which the State recognises the special role of the family in society and guarantees to protect it as the necessary basis for social order and as indispensable to the welfare of the nation and the State. From this, they point out, it is arguable that no legal impediments should be placed in the way of young married persons solely on the grounds of age and that such persons should have the legal capacity to acquire a home and to furnish it.
The Bill is not a complete innovation however, but rather is the culmination of a continuing process of development in our law. In recent years, our law has increasingly recognised that persons of 18 years of age are capable of undertaking adult responsibilities. The Succession Act, 1965, enabled a person who is 18 years or married, to make a valid will. Previously he had to be 21 years or over. Since the enactment of the Guardianship of Infants Act, 1964, a parent under the age of 21 years may appoint a guardian of his child by will. In 1972 the voting age was reduced from 21 years to 18 years following an amendment of the Constitution. It is significant in the context of the present Bill that when the proposal to reduce the voting age was submitted to a referendum, 85 per cent of the votes cast were in favour of the proposal. The Juries Act, 1976, reduced the minimum age limit for jury service in a court or at a coroner's inquest from 21 to 18 years.
It is against this background and having studied the subject in depth that the Law Reform Commission have made their recommendation that the age of majority should be reduced to 18 years. There was widespread support for such a reduction amongst those bodies, including the National Youth Council of Ireland, who made submissions to the commission. The Joint Oireachtas Committee on Legislation also endorsed the commission's recommendation in their Report on the Age of Majority of 11 April 1984 (PI. 2321).
The principal areas of law that will be affected are contract, property and guardianship. Full contractual capacity will now be acquired at 18 or, if a person marries before that age, at the date of marriage. I am glad to say that one effect of this will be to remove an obstacle in the way of many young married couples seeking to buy a home. At present, lending institutions will not provide loans for house purchase to persons under 21 years because as a result of the Infants Relief Act, 1874, a contract for the repayment of a loan by a person under 21 years of age is not binding on him. That will no longer be a reason for refusing a loan to a person who is 18 years or who is married.
A person who has attained the age of 18, or is married before that age, will in future be able to buy and sell land and give valid receipts for the purchase money without the intervention of a trustee or other third person. At present land held by a minor is subject to the Settled Land Acts and powers of dealing with it are exercised by trustees.
When the Bill comes into force questions of guardianship and custody will arise only in respect of persons who are under 18 years instead of persons under 21 years as at present. If, for example, on the commencement of this Act a person is a ward of court, he will be discharged from wardship on that date if he has then reached 18 years of age.
Among the other effects that the Bill will have are that persons over 18 years or who are married before that age will be able to sue or be sued in their own names without the intervention of a next friend or of a guardian ad litem— a guardian ad litem is, of course, a person appointed to defend proceedings on behalf of a minor or a person under a disability. They will also be able to enter into a binding compromise of an action without leave of the court. In addition they will be entitled to act on the committee of a trade union, or any other body, corporate or incorporate. At present, for example, a minor may be a member of a trade union, credit union or a friendly society but he may not serve on the committee of such a body.
I do not think that at this stage I need discuss the detailed provisions of the Bill, most of which are technical or consequential — they will all be gone into fully on Committee Stage. I will mention briefly only two provisions.
Section 2 is the principal provision. It proposes that a person will attain full age on the date the Act comes into operation if he has then reached the age of 18 or is or has been married. After the commencement of the Act, a person will attain full age on reaching the age of 18 or on marriage. The section substitutes a reference to full age for any reference to the age of 21 in every statutory provision passed before the commencement save those specifically exempted. The exempted provisions refer to marriage, adoption, social welfare, taxation and certain pensions.
At present under a rule of common law a person legally attains a particular age — I am not talking only about full age — at the first moment of the day preceding the relevant anniversary of his birth. I am sure that not many members of the general public are aware that this is the legal rule. It is a rule that the lay person would probably regard as artificial and against common sense. It means, for instance, that if a person's birthday is on a Saturday, the law regards him as having reached the relevant age at midnight on the preceding Thursday. Section 4 — subject to a saving in relation to the Electoral Acts — will abolish this rule and provide instead that the moment when a person reaches a particular age, not necessarily full age, will be the commencement of his relevant birthday. This is a sensible and desirable change bringing the law into line with popular understanding.
Subsection (1) of section 4 is drafted so as to exclude its application to provisions of the Constitution — in other words, it will have no relevance for any constitutional provision which specifies a particular age expressed in years. Also, because of subsection (3) it will have no relevance for the Electoral and Referendum Acts mentioned in that subsection, all of which reflect the constitutional provision about age for voting. This merely means that if any question were to come up about the interpretation of these constitutional or electoral provisions it will fall to be decided in its own context and without regard to section 4.
The Bill does not provide for the implementation of recommendations in the Law Reform Commission's report in relation to certain ages for marriage and the effect on the validity of marriage of failure to obtain the consent of parents or guardians to marriages below a certain age. This does not mean the Government are opposed to the implementation of these recommendations but that they consider that they constitute a separate subject from the age of majority to be assessed separately. Indeed, the Law Reform Commission themselves clearly distinguish between the two although they deal with both in the report. The commission's proposals in relation to the minimum age for marriage and the effect of the failure to get parental or other consent for certain marriages are not, of course, directly related to the question of what the age of majority should be. The Government considered that it is better to deal with the question of the appropriate age for marriage as a separate issue and that it would in any event be advisable to await the report of the Oireachtas Committee on Marital Breakdown before proceeding further with amendments of the law of marriage.
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. Similarly, the commission's proposals in relation to certain ages for the purposes of adoption are not included in the Bill which specifically excludes the Adoption Acts from its effects. The two relevant aspects of age in relation to adoption — minimum age of adopters and maximum age of children to be adopted — have never been directly related to the concept of majority. Any changes in this area are more appropriate for consideration in the context of the recently published report of the Review Committee on Adoption Services established by the Minister for Health rather than in the context of proposals for a change in the age of majority.
The Bill will not affect social welfare or taxation legislation. The exemption of social welfare legislation will ensure, in particular, that persons who are at present entitled to social welfare in respect of children between 18 and 21 who are in full-time education will not become disentitled by reason of this Bill. The exclusion of taxation legislation will ensure that a taxpayer will not lose his entitlement to any tax allowance that he might be eligible for at present in respect of a child up to 21 years because of the change in the age of majority.
This Bill is an important piece of legislation which will affect our society in many ways and will, I believe, have significant effects for our young people by enabling them to take responsibility for the conduct of their daily affairs. I understand that there could be as many as 200,000 young people affected by the change in the age of majority, not to mention many others who are approaching that age who will be affected soon after. The Bill will also have important results for young married couples. In the period 1975 to 1980, the most recent years for which figures are available, there were over 38,000 marriages registered in which at least one of the parties was under 21 years. The change in the age of majority will be of particular benefit to them. The Bill recognises that these young people, as a result of developments in education and communications, are reaching maturity at an earlier age than in former times and that they are more capable nowadays of assuming the responsibilities of life than, perhaps, young people were in former times. I believe that this Bill is a timely and worthwhile reform in our civil law and I am confident that it will be widely welcomed.
I commend the Bill to the House and ask that it be given a Second Reading.