Orders of Reference of the Joint Committee
1.Under paragraph (1) (c) of its orders of reference, the Joint Committee is empowered to:-
“to examine the Reports of the Law Reform Commission and to report its opinion and recommendations thereon to both Houses;”
2.Age of Majority - the problem
The Joint Committee has been concerned at the many difficulties that the present age of majority, which is 21 years, causes for persons between 18 and 21 who would wish to be permitted by law to secure e.g. county council loans, mortgages or indeed share in the legal ownership of the family home where one spouse is under 21 years. The Committee accordingly decided to examine the Report which the Commission published in April 1983 on the law relating to the age of majority, the age for marriage and some connected matters.
3.Law Reform Commission
3.1.Following is a brief sketch of the role and work of the Commission which may be of interest to members of the Houses.
3.2.The Commission was established by the Law Reform Commission Act, 1975 as a statutory body corporate to keep the law of the State under review and, in accordance with the provisions of that Act, to undertake examinations and conduct research with a view to reforming the law and to formulate proposals for law reform.
3.3The 1975 Act provides also that, at the request of the Attorney General, the Commission shall formulate and submit to him proposals for reform of the particular branches or matters of law so submitted. The Committee is pleased to note that reform of the law relating to the age of majority was foremost in the Attorney General’s priorities for reform in December, 1975 when he made such a request to the Commission.
3.4.Apart from working papers the Commission has published the following reports to date:-
(a)Criminal Conversation, Enticement and harbouring of a spouse or child, loss of consortium, personal injury to a child, seduction of a child, matrimonial property and breach of promise of marriage.
(b)Civil Liability for Animals.
(e)The law relating to the age of majority, the age for marriage and some connected subjects.
(f)Domicile and Habitual Residence as connecting factors in the conflict of laws.
(g)Divorce a mensa et thoro and related matters.
3.5.Legislation has already been enacted in regard to criminal conversation, actions in respect of breach of promise of marriage and enticement and harbouring of a spouse.
4.Attitude of Joint Committee to LRC Reports
4.1.The Joint Committee considered the reports and decided to examine and report initially to the Houses on the Reports, or aspects of them, at paragraph 3.3 (e), (b) and (c) and in that order of priority. This report is therefore the first of a series under paragraph 1 (c) of its orders of reference which the Joint Committee proposes to present on the Commission’s work.
5.Some historical background as to how the age of 21 evolved
The Joint Committee had before it the Report of the Latey Committee on the Age of Majority which was made to the Lord High Chancellor of Great Britain in 1967 and which indicated, inter alia, that 15 years was the general age of majority in Britain and Northern Europe during the 9th, 10th and 11th centuries. By the time of the Norman Conquest there was a change of emphasis, the mounted knight becoming more and more important, the armour heavier and heavier and the horses more enormous as time went on. By the time of Magna Carta the age for those holding in knight service had been raised to 21 and there is strong authority according to that Report for the view that this was directly linked with the ability to hold up a heavy suit of armour and lift a lance or sword at the same time. However in 1660, military tenure was abolished and what had been military lands were turned into socage (tenure of land by certain determining services other than knight service) where holders could come of age at 15. However a law was enacted whereby a father could in all cases appoint a guardian by deed or will until his child became 21. This was done to stop an infant from squandering his patrimony before he was 21 and in due course the knights age of majority came to apply to everyone.
6.LRC Report on law relating to the Age of Majority etc.
6.1.As the Commission’s research progressed it became obvious that it 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. For example, an alteration in the age of majority could affect the age at which parental consent is required for the marriage of a minor. It could also affect payments and allowances made by or to the parents or guardians of a minor. Accordingly, the Commission considered not only the question of majority but also the question of the minimum age for marriage where the person wishing to marry is a minor, as well as some connected subjects, including the age at which certain social welfare entitlements should commence or terminate, as the case may be, and the minimum age requirement for certain adopters. However, the Joint Committee on Marriage Breakdown is already examining, inter alia, the law in relation to the Age for Marriage and the Committee decided therefore to consider only the age of majority aspect of the Commission’s Report.
6.2.The main proposals made by the Law Reform Commission on the age of majority are
to reduce the age of majority from 21 years to 18 years or the age at which the person concerned marries and to provide that the term “minor” and not “infant” should be applied to a person who has not reached that age;”
6.3. Some implications of the reduction in the age of majority referred to by the Law Reform Commission to 18 are set out hereunder:-
(a)A new adult will be liable for the repayment of any money that he may borrow and for any goods that he buys after he attains majority;
(b)He may enter into any mortgage, charge or hire-purchase agreement that may be required to secure the repayment of moneys owing by him;
(c)He will be free to make settlements of his property;
(d)He may buy and sell land and give valid receipts for the purchase money without the intervention of a trustee or other third person;
(e)He will be entitled to act on the committee of a trade union, or any other body, corporate or unincorporate; and he may enter into binding contracts for the repayment of money to such a body;
(f)He may change his domicile;
(g)He may marry without the consent of his parents or guardians or of the President of the High Court;
(h)He may sue or be sued in his own name without the intervention of a next friend or of a guardian ad litem; and he may enter into a binding compromise of an action without leave of the court;
(i)If he is a ward of court, he will be discharged from wardship.
7.Views of the Joint Committee
7.1.The Committee endorses the recommendations of the Commission that the age of majority should be reduced from 21 to 18 years and is glad to record that the Government recently authorised the drafting of the necessary legislation in that regard and that this is actively underway. According to the Law Reform Commission’s Report Greece, Ireland, the Netherlands, Belgium and Spain are now the only principal European legal systems that retain 21 as the age of majority. Many provinces and States in Canada and the USA, respectively, reduced their age of majority to 18 years many years ago.
7.2.For some time now persons of 18 years of age have been eligible to vote in Dail, local and Presidential elections and referenda and can be eligible for service on a jury. Therefore it seems incongrous and anomalous to the Committee to allow persons between 18 and 21 years to be enfranchised and to act as jurors and yet preclude them from entering into contracts in respect of borrowings, mortgages, settlements of property, buying or selling of land without the intervention of a trustee, and from assuming a full and realistic role in the commercial and financial life of society. The Committee considers that there is no justification for Ireland with its heritage of the Brehon laws (which seem to have recognised that a child required some legal protection but yet did not have the concept of a fixed age at which a young person would attain maturity) lagging so many years behind in having laws which reflect psychological, social and intellectual developments in our understanding and awareness of young persons who must cope with the needs and demands of an existence which is far removed from the world of knights in shining armour.
7.3.A reduction in the age of majority will go some way to erase obsolete laws which do not reflect the ever growing consciousness that our young people with their sense of initiative, enterprise and adaptability are our true wealth. A sense of the past may help us to understand the present but it should not determine our capacity to respond to new needs or to meet new challenges. The Committee hopes therefore that the Government will expedite as much as possible the introduction of the necessary legislation to up-date our laws in respect of the age of majority.
The Committee wishes to record its appreciation of the assistance it received from the Law Reform Commission which was kind enough to furnish the Committee with copies of all its working papers and reports.
(Signed): Mervyn Taylor, T.D.
Chairman of the Joint Committee