Seanad Éireann - Volume 185 - 06 December, 2006

Adjournment Matters. - Pre-nuptial Agreements.

  Mr. Browne: I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Gallagher, to the House. On 18 October last, we had a good debate here on this serious topic. The Tánaiste and Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy McDowell, agreed with the main thrust of the debate, which was, the idea of clarifying the current status of pre-nuptial agreements in Irish law and looking at the effect of their possible introduction. There was unanimous support in the House for the whole concept. In the past 30 or 40 years, we have undergone major economic and social changes. People are marrying later in life and, consequently, entering marriage with considerable assets which they own in their own right, with no input by their new spouse. People are remarrying and, in that context, may also have built up considerable assets. They may have a family from the first marriage and would see much benefit from a pre-nuptial agreement. In addition, there is the issue of those who own businesses and farms, so these matters affect a wide range of people.

8 o’clock

I was amazed at the reaction to the debate in the House on 18 October. Initially, it may have been thought that pre-nuptial agreements concern only American multi-millionaires, but it was soon realised such matters apply to a wider number of people. During the earlier debate, we disagreed on one point. I urged the Minister to ask the Law Reform Commission to examine the issue of pre-nuptial agreements, but he suggested the establishment of a working group which would produce a report more quickly. That was six weeks ago, however, and the working group has still not been established. I am concerned that [1139]despite the unanimous decision of this House, we have not seen progress on the appointment of a working group and neither have we seen its terms of reference being clearly laid out. I am aware of many people who would be keen to make submissions to such a working group. Earlier this week, the programme “Ear to the Ground” referred to this issue in the context of marriage breakdown and family farms being divided as a result. If people have been married for a long time I can see why a farm, or half a farm, may be sold. However, if a couple have been married for only a year or two when their marriage breaks down, it is outrageous that, in effect, they end up having to sell the farm and cannot continue in farming. Not alone do they lose their marriage, therefore, but they also lose their livelihood. The Minister of State will be aware that farming has become a difficult endeavour. It is difficult to earn an income from a farm and, therefore, impossible to do so from half a farm. It is vitally important to clarify the law in this area. If people opt for a pre-nuptial agreement, the State should recognise it.

I look forward to the Minister of State’s reply. I hope it will not be a general and ambiguous answer, as is normal with Adjournment matters, but will deal in specifics. The Minister of State should tell us exactly how many people will be on the working group, when they will be appointed and what the group’s terms of reference will be.

  Mr. Gallagher: I thank Senator Browne for raising this matter. I apologise on behalf of the Tánaiste who is unable to attend the House.

I refute the Senator’s suggestion that there has been a delay in appointing members of the group to study the operation of the law with respect to pre-nuptial agreements. The fact is there has been no undue delay. The Tánaiste indicated previously to the House that the study group would be chaired by a senior counsel. I am pleased to inform the House that Ms Inge Clissmann SC has agreed to undertake this task. Ms Clissmann is an [1140]expert in family law and has represented clients in some of the leading cases in this field. Her particular specialist areas include matrimonial litigation, child advocacy and related private international law issues.

The terms of reference of the study group are “to study and report on the operation of the law since the introduction of divorce in 1996 with respect to pre-nuptial agreements, taking into account constitutional requirements”. The Tánaiste has asked the group to report by 31 March 2007 and to make recommendations for change, as it considers necessary. The Tánaiste intends to publish the report and any recommendations made.

The other members of the study group will include experienced legal practitioners in family law, legal academics and representatives from the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, and the Office of the Attorney General. The necessary consultations and formalities involved in appointing the remaining members of the study group will be completed shortly.

On 18 October, as Senator Browne said, there was a full exchange of views in this House on the issue of pre-nuptial agreements. As the Tánaiste made clear on that occasion, the issue, as circumscribed by the Constitution, is not straightforward and will require close examination by the group. The Tánaiste looks forward to having the group’s report which, he expects, will help fully to inform the public and the Government on what action can and should be taken. As I have said, the group will be asked to report by 31 March next. While the chairperson has been appointed, I expect the other members of the group will be appointed in the near future.

  Mr. Browne: I thank the Minister of State for a very informative reply. That is all news to me and vindicates the purpose of the Adjournment debate.

  The Seanad adjourned at 8.05 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 7 December 2006.