Family comes first. For many people, that’s just a matter of common sense: so is the fact that the law protects families. Under Irish law, families are constitutionally protected. But what happens when it’s harder to define who’s family? What happens when families break down, and what rights should birth parents have?
Mr Keegan met his girlfriend in 1986, and they started living together. She became pregnant, but before the baby was born they broke up. She gave their daughter up for adoption, and only told him afterwards. Under Irish law at the time parents who are married constitutionally protected, but not fathers out of wedlock. Fathers who weren’t married to the mothers of their child could apply to be guardians: but they had no automatic right to be one, and only guardians could automatically challenge adoption procedures. Mr Keegan did apply, but the case went up through all the Irish courts and ultimately the Supreme Court of Ireland held it was better for his daughter to remain with her adoptive family.
He complained that this had breached both his right to a family life and his right of access to the courts. The European Court of Human Rights agreed. There was a bond between parent and child amounting to family life even if at the moment of birth the parental relationship had broken down. Secret placement of the child for adoption was an interference with that, and wasn’t justified – it was a permanent interference with his right to a family life, and no welfare reason had been given. They also agreed his right of access to courts was breached: by the time the case had gone through all the courts, his daughter had developed a bond with her new family that meant proceedings were irrevocably tilted against him.