The Parliamentary Committee on Legal Affairs today started the debate on the reform of family law with the first set of four bills out of the total of eight bills that will be passed in this context.
At the heart of the reform, as the Minister of Justice Stefi Drakou pointed out when presenting the bills, is the interest of the child which is at the heart of the reform, but also the equality between the parents and the equal distribution of the burdens between them, the speedy adjudication of cases and the normalization of family relations.
Among the most important points of the four bills is the raising of the age limit for marriage to 18 years from 16, the removal of some of the responsibilities of the church in matters of divorce and the possibility of minors after 16 years to have a say in how much they request psychological support.
The first bill concerns article 111 of the Constitution with the deletion of the provision that wants divorces to be tried by three judges, one of whom must be a clerical jurist, something that has never been implemented in practice. It is recommended that all cases be heard by a single judge. In addition, the provision of the constitution covering grounds for divorce, including grounds in the church charter, is amended to apply to those who choose to have a religious marriage.
The second bill amends the law on family courts by specializing and upgrading the judge's qualifications and introducing a process of mandatory continuous training for them in matters of family law and children's rights. A provision is also introduced, according to which the same judge will take charge of all the cases that are raised at any time between the same parties before the same Family Court, so that, as the Minister said, he is familiar with the cases he manages and has a wider their perception. Provision is also introduced as the family courts now hear the divorce cases of the members of the religious groups which until now were tried by the provincial courts.
The third bill concerning the Marriage Law is amended so that the age limit for marriage is 18 years instead of 16, following a proposal by the Commissioner for the Protection of Children's Rights, in order to harmonize with the law that states that the age of sexual of consent is 17 years of age. In addition, the grounds for divorce that are currently scattered in various laws are now gathered in article 27 of the Marriage Law. The Minister stated that this ensures legal clarity and rationalization of legislation.
The law is also amended to introduce consensual divorce with the conditions that the marriage has lasted six months and the spouses declare before the court in a session set three months after the registration application that they consent to the dissolution of the marriage. In case there are minor children, issues of custody and communication with the children should be regulated. The separation time required to establish the rebuttable presumption of marital breakdown is reduced from four years to two.
The fourth bill concerns the Law on Attempted Reconciliation and Spiritual Resolution of Marriage and the obligation before registering a divorce to notify the competent Bishop and to attempt reconciliation in order to save the marriage. However, the Minister stated that over the years, this procedure has become completely formal. The Minister expressed the intention of the Government to either abolish the law completely or to modify it so that the procedure is followed according to the choice of the spouses themselves. At the same time, he stated that if the reason for divorce is violence, there will be no right to send a notification letter.
In statements after the end of the Commission, the Minister of Justice expressed the intention to have private consultations with the political forces, and said that the Ministry is open to discuss all the recommendations that will be made.
During the session, the Commissioner for the Protection of Children's Rights, Despo Michailidou, expressed her satisfaction that many of her recommendations have been heeded, such as the deletion of provisions for underage marriages. At the same time, he expressed some concerns about the issue of issuing a consensual divorce and whether judicial custody of the child should be arranged. He also stated that regarding the attempt at reconciliation, this should not be done in the case of violence against minors. Regarding violence in the family, he said that a conviction should not be expected, but that there should be an arrangement so that children are not left exposed to danger.
On behalf of the Ministry of Health, the prevention of children from receiving evaluation or psychological support from their parents was particularly emphasized and requested that this can be done from and before the age of 16 without the consent of both parents.
The Chairman of the Committee, DISY Member of Parliament Nikos Tornaritis stated that the members of the Committee will be given 15 days to study the bills and continue with the article-by-article discussion.
In his statements after the end of the Commission, Mr. Tornaritis stated that the aim is to have a fair and child-centered reform, since as he said children are the first victims of a divorce and they must first and foremost be protected and be strengthened, using international treaties and the best practices applied in modern democracies.
The goal, he added, is immediate and quality justice at the first level and this is achieved by revising the constitution and reducing the number of judges from three to one with one following the course of the trial to the end.
He added that in addition to legal training and the laws, there needs to be sensitivity, which he said he has encountered both from the Ministry of Justice and from all sides of the Parliament.
AKEL Member of Parliament Aristos Damianou expressed his regret that the necessary modernization of family law has been stuck for many years in the gears of dogmatism and positions that for a long time the Ministry of Justice held. He added that the Republic of Cyprus is the only member state of the EU and the only member of the Council of Europe in which the Church of Cyprus is still involved in issuing a political divorce.
At the same time, he expressed satisfaction for the readiness of the Minister of Justice to listen to proposals and concerns that were submitted in the past and were rejected by her predecessors. He invited the Government to cooperate with them on the issue of family law, expressing the belief that through dialogue many problems can be bridged. He also stated that AKEL will advance its positions through amendments or through the article-by-article discussion.
He also expressed the opinion that these issues are not for party consumption, but as he said, the dogmas of some parties, especially the ruling party, "have held us back from a necessary reform."
DIKO Member of Parliament Panikos Leonidou expressed satisfaction at the start of the debate. He stated that the DIKO will submit its opinions again, as well as new opinions, following suggestions made by institutions and organizations, so that the process can proceed as soon as possible to finally bring about the change in family law.
At the same time, he expressed the opinion that the Church also has a role to play in human relations and therefore it should be examined how and when the church intervenes, something that must be examined seriously and with great care in order not to create wrong impressions.
Regarding family law, he said that it is the pre-eminent human right and therefore it should not be limited either to the woman, or to the child, or to the man, or to the grandfather or grandmother. As he said, it should be seen in the whole of human relations and of course the protection of the rights of the minor child should also concern the state more.
The President of the Environmentalists Movement - Citizens' Cooperation Charalambos Theopeptou said that in such serious matters as family law, a way should be found to automatically revise the law every few years, so that "we can always be right". He added that the Commission has a lot of work ahead of it and it needs everyone's cooperation. He declared the readiness of the Movement to help as much as it can in the work of the Commission and with the help of the Ministry to make these changes in matters that are bothering so many people.