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Court upholds male-only right to deny legal fatherhood

A group of plaintiffs who filed a damages suit over a legal provision that allows only men to take legal action denying legal fatherhood head to the Osaka High Court, on Aug. 30, 2018. (Kyodo)

OSAKA (Kyodo) -- A high court upheld Thursday a lower court ruling that found constitutional a legal provision that allows only men to file lawsuits denying legal fatherhood, dismissing a damages suit filed by a family against the state.

The plaintiffs in the 2.2 million yen ($19,700) damages suit -- a woman in her 60s living in Kobe, her daughter in her 30s and her 8- and 4-year-old grandchildren -- argued the Civil Code provision only enabling men to deny legal fatherhood is discriminatory and unconstitutional.

According to the suit, the woman lived apart from her husband due to domestic violence and had a baby with a different man before their divorce was finalized. She opted not to notify authorities of the birth as under the Civil Code it would have been "presumed" that the husband was the father.

The lack of birth notification resulted in the daughter being unable to get legally married and the daughter's two children, who were also not listed on a family registry, did not receive notifications for school enrollment and public medical checkups.

Upholding the Kobe District Court's ruling in November, the Osaka High Court said the Civil Code provision is "beneficial to a child as it finalizes the father-child relationship at an early stage."

Settling the legal status of a child should be prioritized over matching a biological father and child, said Presiding Judge Toshiko Eguchi in handing down the ruling.

The high court also urged the state to address the problem of people not listed on family registries, saying it is "an issue regarding how a family should be" and the legislature should deal with the matter while taking into account tradition and public sentiment.

The daughter and her two children were able to get listed on a family registry in 2016 through special court procedures after the woman's former husband died. But the plaintiffs said the three could have avoided being unregistered if wives and children were allowed to rebut the presumed legitimacy under the Civil Code.

The provision has left many other women and children in similar situations as wives who flee domestic violence are often unable to file for divorce as they try to avoid contact with their husbands. As of Aug. 10, 715 people were not listed on family registries, according to the Justice Ministry.

The ministry began probing the problem in 2014 and instructed its legal affairs bureaus across the country in November to help such people resolve problems of legal status.

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