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.