Judge expresses concerns over exemptions to marriage age restrictions

Tuesday 18 June 2013 19.30
Mr Justice John McMenamin raised concerns over the case involving an arranged marriage
Mr Justice John McMenamin raised concerns over the case involving an arranged marriage

A High Court judge has said legislation may be needed to assist young people placed in arranged or forced marriages.

Mr Justice John McMenamin also said the system for seeking exemptions from the legal age limit for marriage needs review as it raises child welfare questions in certain cases.

His observations followed a court annulment of an arranged marriage of a 16-year-old girl to a 29-year-old man.

In a judgment delivered in public because of the important issues it raised, Mr Justice McMenamin revealed the girl was later taken to Eygpt despite a court order restraining her removal from Ireland.

The judge revealed what he described as "unfortunate and disturbing" developments which followed his ruling in the case of the girl, who is from an Islamic family.

She married the man in an Islamic centre in 2010.

The girl's teachers, the Health Service Executive and gardaí became involved in the case when the girl ran away from home.

She told her teachers her brother had threatened to kill her if she ran away. She was taken into care but later returned to her family.

In 2011 the court had ruled the marriage was invalid as she had not consented to it. She was in care for a time but later returned to her family.

She was later taken to Egypt.

Authorities continue to be involved in the case amid concerns for her welfare.

However efforts to contact her have been blocked. The girl is not an Irish citizen and is now over age so her return cannot be sought by Irish authorities.

Legislation on arranged marriages may be needed

The judge said bearing in mind the increased cultural and religious diversity in Irish society and the significance afforded by the Constitution to equality, the status and rights of children and the institution of marriage, legislation may be necessary to address and support the position of very young people in such situations.

There is presently no legislation which addresses the question of forced marriages or marriages where there is no real consent.

Mr Justice McMenamin said there does not appear to be any designated person to provide specialist support.

Formalised channels of liaison between State agencies and gardaí are also necessary, he said.

Before the ceremony two applications were made to the Circuit Court to exempt the girl from the age restriction and from the requirement to give three months notice of intention to marry.

The first was refused but the second was granted. Neither party to the marriage were legally represented.

The judge pointed out these applications can be made without any notification to the authorities.

He said: "In certain circumstances such marriage exemptions may give rise to significant child welfare issues," which should activate sections of the Child Care Act.

He also said the question now arises as to whether the court should be obliged to give notice to the HSE to inquire into the protection and welfare circumstances of the child.

State agencies acted appropriately - Judge

The judges stressed that none of the State agencies involved in the girl's case were to be criticised.

At all times they had acted appropriately he said. He also stressed the actions of the girl's family, who are of the Islamic faith, were "atypical" for this community.

Religious leaders had tried to assist in the case but her removal from the country could not have been foreseen, the judge said.

Several months prior to the marriage the girl's teachers noticed changes in her behaviour and demeanour.

Social workers met her family but her parents moved her from the school. The girl confided in a teacher at her new school and gardaí were contacted.

It appeared she had actually gone through a marriage ceremony but did not realise the significance of it. Before the marriage she had met her husband briefly on a just a few occasions.

The judge said there were many things left unsaid as the parents never gave evidence in the High Court hearing.

They seemed to regard themselves as long term exiles from Egypt rather than permanent residents of Ireland. Their situation was "never fully explained", he said.

The parents were never frank with the HSE. Despite receiving treatment for a medical condition here, the girl was removed from Ireland.

Her welfare remains a matter for concern.

Efforts to contact her through the Irish embassy in Cairo were obstructed, the judge said.

However, there is no basis in law for a request to have her returned to Ireland because of her current age and non-Irish citizenship.