Any discussion on family law must start with a definition of what is, legally speaking, considered a “family”. (The debate on what should be considered a family rages on, particularly with the introduction of civil partnerships. However, for the purposes of this piece, I shall stick to the current legal definition, as at June 2012.) Though there are references to the family in Articles 41 and 42 of the Constitution, nowhere in it is there a definition of the term. Thus, as is so often the case in the legal sphere, the job was left to the courts.
The leading case in this respect is that of The State (Nicolaou) v. An Bórd Uchtála  which defined the family as that based on marriage. In it, the Supreme Court rejected an unmarried father’s claim that the Adoption Act 1952 was unconstitutional in that it allowed for his child to be put up for adoption without his consent. Though it is no longer the case that an unmarried father has no rights in respect of his child, and despite a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights in Keegan v. Ireland  that the State is in breach of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, the definition of the family unit as being based on marriage has survived and has been reaffirmed by the Irish courts time and time again.
Thus, under current Irish law, a family consists of a husband and wife and their children, if any. (For clarification, and again, subject to controversy, it excludes unmarried couples and gay couples, though, increasingly, the rights of cohabitees and “one-parent families” are being recognised. I will cover these topics in later posts.)
Of course, legal matters in the area often extend to persons outside the “nuclear family” of husband, wife and child, so my next post will discuss the scope of family law.