Limerick East): This Bill is, I believe, a welcome and desirable improvement in our law which will prove to be of considerable benefit to our young people.
The Bill is designed to implement the recommendations of the Law Reform Commission in relation to the age of majority which are contained in their report entitled Report on the Law relating to the Age of Majority, the Age for Marriage and Some Connected Subjects. The principal recommendation of the commission was that the age of majority be reduced from 21 to 18 years or the age at which a person marries if earlier.
Prior to the publication of the report the commission published a working paper on the subject and in newspaper advertisements invited the views of the public generally on the matter. The commission also conducted a wide ranging investigation in the course of which they communicated with law reform agencies, lawyers and jurists in many countries and comprehensively reviewed the law on the age of majority here, in Britain and various other countries in Europe and elsewhere.
I think it is only fitting, before discussing the Bill further, that I should express my appreciation of the work done by the commission on this subject. The thorough and painstaking research which is evident in the working paper and the final report has contributed greatly to our knowledge of the existing law on this matter and on the implications of the changes proposed. I am sure that I am voicing the sentiments of the House when I say that we are grateful to the commission for the work they have done in this area.
It is not clear why or when exactly the age of majority was originally fixed at 21 years. There is evidence that at one time the age of majority was associated with physical strength and that the different ages applied to different social classes. For example, it appears that in feudal times certain classes attained the age of majority at 15 but for a person engaged in the service of a knight the age of majority was 21. Gradually the latter age of majority came to be applied to everyone and under the common law a person under 21 was treated as an infant, or minor, who was subject to certain legal limitations, the most important being in his capacity to enter into contracts or to own property. The purpose of these limitations was to protect a minor from his own improvidence and inexperience without at the same time causing unnecessary hardship to any person dealing with him.
The Law Reform Commission's report clearly shows that there is a world-wide trend to reduce the age of majority. In 1972 a resolution of the Council of Europe recommended a reduction in the age of majority. In Britain and Northern Ireland and many other European countries it has been reduced to 18 years. In the great majority of states in the USA the age is also 18 years. This trend reflects the general consensus that young people are now reaching physical and mental maturity at an earlier age than in former times and that they are in general fully capable of accepting responsibility for the conduct of their daily lives.
I am sure that many young people resent the implication in the present age of majority that they are improvident and irresponsible until they reach 21 years of age. People tend quite often to think of young people in terms of the delinquent minority, forgetting that the vast majority of our young people are sensible and responsible members of society. I think many would agree with a conclusion reached by an English committee — the Latey Committee — in recommending a reduction in the age of majority "that to keep responsibility from those who are ready and able to take it on is much more likely to make them irresponsible than to help them".
It is possible to suggest, as that committee did also "that the handicap of being unable to buy, say, a washing machine on the HP does no good to the young and inexperienced bride; that being unable to get a mortgage hardly helps the responsible young to keep house securely and independently from the start of their marriages". I think most reasonable people would agree with these views. Moreover, the Law Reform Commission have suggested that the protection of the family guaranteed in the Constitution would indicate that impediments should not be placed in the way of young married people in acquiring and furnishing a home.
The Bill also continues a trend that has already been reflected in a number of provisions in existing legislation that recognise the right of people to assume legal responsibility at 18 years or on marriage if earlier. The Succession Act 1965 enables a person who is 18 years or married to make a valid will; the Guardianship of Infants Act, 1964 empowers a parent under 21 years of age to appoint a guardian of his child by will and the Family Law Act, 1981 provides that a consent given by a spouse to the sale or disposal of the family home will not be invalid by reason of the fact that the spouse was under 21. Moreover, the voting age was reduced from 21 to 18 years by way of a constitutional amendment in 1972. It is noteworthy that that change was supported by 85 per cent of the votes cast at the relevant referendum.
The Report of the Law Reform Commission indicates that there was widespread support for the proposal to change the age of majority to 18 years among those bodies who made submissions to the commission. The Oireachtas Joint Committee on Legislation also endorsed the commission's recommendation in their Report on the Age of Majority of 11 April 1984.
It is proposed that the provisions of the Bill will come into operation on 1 March 1985. On that date a person who has reached 18 or is married will acquire full legal capacity. I understand that this will affect upwards of 200,000 people who are at present between the ages of 18 and 21, not to mention many more who are approaching the age of 18.
The main areas of law affected are contract, property and guardianship. A person of 18 or who is married will be free to enter into contracts and to buy or sell land and to give valid receipts for the purchase money without intervention of a trustee or other third person. I am confident that this change will be of significant benefit to the young people concerned, especially young married couples who may at present have difficulty in securing housing finance, and others such as young farmers and business people who, because of the existing limitations on their contractual capacity are unable to obtain loans to help finance development.
The central provision of the Bill is in section 2 which proposes that on the commencement date a person will attain full age if he has reached 18 or is or has been married. The section provides that a reference to age of majority, full age, infancy and cognate expressions in any statutory provision, including statutory instruments whenever made, and in any deed, will, court order or other instrument made on or after the commencement date will be construed as a reference to the new age of majority except in the Acts specifically exempted. The exempted provisions relate to marriage, adoption, social welfare, taxation, maintenance orders, certain pensions and legislation relating to the custody of persons.
The purpose of excluding these statutory provisions from the scope of the Bill is to preserve the existing legal effect of references to 21 years in those provisions. Any changes in relation to ages mentioned in those provisions would be appropriate to separate legislation in each of the areas concerned.
The exemptions in respect of maintenance orders and legislation relating to the custody of persons were inserted by way of amendments that I moved in the Dáil. I would like to explain briefly why these amendments were made.
With regard to maintenance orders, the Law Reform Commission in their working paper proposed that the right to obtain a maintenance order in respect of a child receiving full time education up to 21 years of age should be preserved. But, in the final report the commission reconsidered that view and recommended that the right to maintenance should cease on attainment of the age of majority since, in their view, a necessary implication of attaining majority is that a child is sufficiently mature and independent to be responsible for his or her own maintenance. Having listened carefully to the arguments on both sides of this question I came to the conclusion that it would be better not to effect any change. Accordingly I moved the amendment to exempt the relevant statutory provisions from the scope of the section.
As to legislation relating to the custody of persons, it was not intended that the Bill should affect the age at which a person might be committed to an adult prison. The considerations that apply in deciding age limits in this area are unrelated to the age of majority and it was considered therefore that it would be most inappropriate to make any changes in this respect in this Bill.
Section 4 implements the commission's proposal to abolish the existing common law rule for calculating a person's age. At present a person is deemed under common law to attain a particular age at the commencement of the day before his birthday. The result is that a person whose birthday falls, for example, on a Saturday is deemed to have reached the relevant age at midnight on the preceding Thursday. This is generally regarded as illogical and artificial. The effect of the section will be that after the commencement date of the Act a person will attain any particular age on the date of the relevant anniversary of his or her birth, in other words, on his birthday. This will be more in keeping with commonsense and will bring the rule into line with that in existing social welfare legislation.
The remaining provisions of the Bill relate largely to technical consequential matters arising as a result of the reduction in the age of majority. There are a number of transitional provisions in the schedule. Funds held in court under a court order will be payable to the person concerned on attaining the new age of majority instead of 21 years as at present. Wardship and custody orders, in force before the Act commences, applicable to a person up to 21 years, will cease on attainment of 18 years or on marriage. Other transitional provisions are designed to preserve the existing legal position in relation to deeds, wills, trust instruments and causes of action made or accruing before the commencement date.
A number of recommendations of the Law Reform Commission are not being implemented in this Bill as it was considered that they would be more appropriately dealt with as separate matters.
The commission proposed that the free age for marriage — that is the age at which a person can marry without consent of a third party — be reduced from 21 to 18 and that the absolute minimum age for marriage should be fixed at 16 years. Any marriages between 16 and 18 years would require the consent of a parent, guardian or of the court and failure to obtain consent would render the marriage void. The Government consider that the question of the appropriate minimum age for marriage constitutes a separate subject from that of the age of majority and that it would be desirable to deal with it as a separate issue. They also consider it advisable to await the report of the Oireachtas Committee on Marriage Breakdown, whose recommendations will require careful and detailed consideration, before deciding on the appropriate action to be taken in relation to this question. Reduction of the free age for marriage could, in any event, be effected in regulations that could be made by the Minister for Health under the Marriages Act, 1972.
The commission also proposed that the age up to which parents should be obliged to maintain children for the purposes of social welfare and other legislation should be raised from 16 to 18 years. It was considered that this matter would be more appropriately dealt with in the context of the legislation concerned. Proposals made by the commission in relation to the certain ages for the purposes of adoption have not been included in the Bill. The question of the appropriate ages in adoption matters has never been directly related to the age of majority. I understand that the Minister for Health will be putting forward proposals for amendment of the adoption laws when examination of the recently published report of the Review Committee on Adoption Services has been completed and that would seem a more appropriate context in which to consider the commission's proposals.
The House will note from the list of exempted statutory provisions, in section 2 of the Bill, that social welfare and taxation legislation will not be affected by the change in the age of majority. These exemptions will have the effect of preserving any existing entitlements to benefits or allowances under such legislation in respect of children in full time education up to 21 years.
In conclusion let me say that while this Bill is a relatively straightforward and generally a non-contentious measure it will have important consequences for a large segment of the population. It will confer on our young people certain legal rights but it will also impose on them certain legal obligations. Freedom to enter into contracts and to incur debts will also involve the obligation to fulfil those contracts and to pay those debts. I am confident that we will not be disappointed in the response of our young people to the challenge.