Anybody reading the first sentence in the explanatory memorandum which was circulated with this Bill could be forgiven for thinking that the report of the Law Reform Commission was being implemented in full in this Bill. However, on closer examination it transpires that only three of the recommendations contained in the report are being dealt with in the Bill. On the bottom of page 1 of the explanatory memorandum there is a statement in very small print which states:
The remaining recommendations in the Report (principally, those relating to the age for marriage and the requirement of parental or court consent for certain marriages and recommendations that certain ages should be changed for the purposes of adoption, income tax and social welfare laws) are being considered separately.
There is no indication of how long the consideration of these matters will take or what action, if any may be taken on them. Therefore, whereas a Bill along the lines of the draft Bill contained in the Law Reform Commission report would be quite a substantial legislative measure, there is very little by way of substance in the Bill before the House.
Paragraph 2, page 2 of the Law Reform Commission report states:
The Attorney General requested the Commission in December 1975 to undertake an examination of and conduct research into the law relating to majority and, if it is thought fit, to formulate proposals for its reform and submit them to him.
Paragraph 3 states:
As the research progressed it became obvious that the Commission could not limit itself to the simple question of whether or not an alteration should be made in the age of majority and that other related questions would fall to be examined.
Examples were then given of some of the related matters which the commission felt should be examined in conjunction with an examination of the age of majority. However, the proposals in the Bill before the House deal with the age of majority only and do not touch upon the other matters which the Law Reform Commission considered should be taken in conjunction with any change in the age of majority. For that reason I believe that the passing of this Bill will result in a number of anomalies in the related areas to which the Law Reform Commission report refers. The explanatory memorandum states:
The main provision of the Bill proposes a reduction of the age of majority from 21 years to 18 years or earlier on marriage. Among the other provisions is one to replace the common law rule, under which a person attains a particular age expressed in years on the day before his birthday, with a new rule to the effect that a particular age is attained on the person's birthday.
I accept that for some years there has been a demand for a reform of the law relating to the age of majority. The Fourth Amendment of the Constitution Act, 1972, proposed that the voting age be reduced from 21 to 18. When this matter came before the people in the referendum on December 7 of that year there was an overwhelming majority in favour of the proposal. Of the 856,353 valid votes cast, 724,836 were in favour and 131,514 were against. I accept also that the Law Reform report puts forward a very convincing case in support of its recommendation that on marriage a minor should in law become an adult.
In paragraph 16, page 8 the commission refer to Article 41.1 of the Constitution which provides as follows:
1º The State recognises the Family as the natural primary and fundamental unit group of Society, and as a moral institution possessing inalienable and imprescriptible rights, antecedent and superior to all positive law.
2º The State, therefore, guarantees to protect the family in its constitution and authority, as the necessary basis of social order and as indispensable to the welfare of the Nation and the State.
Paragraph 17 of the report states:
The Commission noted that from this it could be argued that no legal impediments or obstructions should be placed in the way of young married persons solely on the ground of age and that such persons should have the legal capacity to acquire a home and to furnish it. They should also have the right to establish a trade or business. As a consequence, they should be legally able to borrow money, to incur debts and to undertake contractual obligations. Third persons should be able to deal with any married minor, secure in the knowledge that the minor will be bound by his transactions.
There is a very strong case here that on marriage a minor should, in law, become an adult. The fact that since 1972 young people have been eligible to vote at 18 years has been frequently used as an argument in favour of a reduction in the age of majority to 18 years also. I believe that the strongest and most compelling argument that was advanced in support of the reduction in the voting age was that many young people between the ages of 18 and 21 were in employment and that they had to pay their taxes the same as everybody else. Therefore, if one conceded that there was substance or merit in the age old principle of no taxation without representation then there was a very strong case for giving these young people a vote in the election of those who have responsibility for the taxation system. Since it would be impossible to implement an employment or tax-paying qualification for eligibility to vote, the only way in which these young people could be enfranchised was by reducing the voting age from 21 to 18 years.
The same argument, however, cannot be used in support of a reduction in the age of majority. In my view the case for a reduction in the voting age was much stronger than it is for a reduction in the age of majority. Some of the other arguments which have been advanced for a reduction in the age of majority are not very convincing either. We are told that Ireland, the Netherlands, Belgium and Spain are now the only principal European states whose legal systems retain 21 as the age of majority. We are also reminded that the UK as well as many provinces in the United States and Canada have long since reduced their age of majority to 18 years. I do not believe that we should be too influenced by what has happened in other jurisdictions. After more than 60 years of independence we should take decisions in relation to such matters on the basis of what is best and most prudent for our particular situation.
The fact that the age of 21 years is the age of majority has its origins in Norman or English law or the fact that the Brehon Laws do not appear to have recognised any particular age as the age at which a person could be deemed to have reached the requisite level of maturity to make his own decisions are also in my view not very relevant to a consideration of the case for a reduction in the age of majority. Of considerable more relevance is the way in which the legal position of minors in this country has been altered by various statutes especially in recent years. In addition to the Electoral (Amendment) Act, 1973, to which I have already referred, the Guardianship of Infants Act, 1964, the Succession Act, 1965, the Juries Act, 1976, and the Family Home Protection Act together with the Family Law Act of 1981 have all extended the rights and responsibilities of minors. The fact that this has happened indicates that in recent years there has been an ever-growing recognition that 18 years olds can be relied on to act in a mature and responsible way.
However, it could be argued that while mental maturity is all that is required so that an 18 year old will act in a mature and responsible way, something more is required when one is, for example, entering into a contract or a hire purchase agreement, purchasing property, taking out an insurance policy or borrowing money. Once the age of majority is reduced, all persons between the ages of 18 and 21 and married persons under 18 will no longer have the legal protection that they had heretofore in these situations. I believe, and in this I agree with Senator Honan, that some legal protection should be available in all these areas to persons under 21 years of age.
I am sure the Minister is as well aware as I am that there is a minority of unscrupulous individuals operating in all the areas that I have mentioned. This is a fact of life and certainly it is in no way a reflection on the integrity of the vast majority of people engaged in these areas. I have no doubt also that the unscrupulous few will not be slow to take advantage of a whole new potential consumer market which will be opened up for them when this Bill becomes law and comes into operation. If it is possible to amend this Bill to provide protection against exploitation for persons under 21 in the areas I have mentioned I would ask the Minister to consider doing so on Committee Stage. If it is not possible to provide such protection in this Bill, I feel it should be done by amending the existing legislation which regulates hire purchase, money lending, insurance and so on.
In any event, I ask the Minister to delay the coming into operation of this legislation. It is proposed that when passed this measure will come into operation on 1 March 1985, that is only a few weeks away. I believe that certain things should be done before it comes into operation. This legislation will change the legal status of many thousands of young people. The Minister in his Second Stage speech mentioned the figure of upwards of 200,000. On the day that this legislation comes into operation all these people will be vulnerable to the dangers to which I have referred. I believe they should be put on their guard by alerting them to the implications of this legislation and the danger of exploitation which it may involve for them. This should be done through an extensive media campaign to publicise this legislation and the date on which it will come into operation. I do not believe there will be sufficient time between its passing and March to mount an effective publicity campaign. Therefore, I consider that the coming into operation of the measure should be deferred to a later date.
It is all very fine to say that this is very welcome, progressive and desirable legislation because it will make it possible for a person under 21 to get a county council loan or to buy a home or property. I, too, welcome the fact that it will make all these things possible but I fear very much that it will also leave the very people whom it is intended to serve vulnerable to an unnecessary degree. If that happens then the legislation will have created as many problems as it will have solved.