Show me your laws and I’ll know how ageist you are

Selective legal aspects concerning age: a series delving into the legal landscape surrounding ageing – Part 1.

There has clearly been a shift in recent years wherein the field of law and ageing has gained visibility. Starting in North America and spreading to Common Law jurisdictions, it eventually reached continental Europe. Such historical shifts cannot be ignored.

The reasons for such increased interest in law may have been threefold:

1) Demographic changes bring about socio-legal implications, with increasing healthy longevity occurring concurrently with drastic drops in the birth rate. Older persons themselves and their organisations have started to voice their claim for the legal recognition of their rights.

2) The legal profession is also recognising the potential needs of older clientele in these new scenarios, while academia and the world of science have realised the need that jurists and gerontologists combine the social and legal bases of knowledge.

3) Interest seems to be growing internationally, spurred by the debate around the process that brought to fruition the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability (CRPD). This steered more awareness of rights in older age, which is giving rise to the campaigning for an international Convention on Ageing.

Historically Maltese Law – that is lawyers, judges, legislators, or academics in the fields of science and philosophy of law – was not very much interested in ‘older persons’ or in ‘ageing’ as such (Doron, 2008). A quick Google search for the term ‘years of age’ in our Civil Code would render a number of hits regarding the age of children and young people. These entries include the definition of a child being a person under 18 years of age, the several ages of children in adoption provisions, the opening of a bank account by 16 year-olds, and so on and so forth. However, in the whole of the Malta Civil Code, there is only one direct reference to old age: it is the entitlement of a person 60 years old or over to decline or discontinue the office of a tutor of a descendant.

This, however, does not mean that there are no provisions that may be understood as referring to older persons. Typically, the law concerned itself with the older population within the broader context of treating the poor, those who are unable to care for themselves, or in the context of filial responsibility. Article 8 of the Civil Code prescribes that, “The children are bound to maintain their parents or other ascendants who are indigent”. As can be seen, the wording has no direct inference to old age, and indeed indigent parents can very well be of a relatively younger age too. Nevertheless, this Article had been drafted way before the advent of State pensions and social welfare and, as a general rule, then-old parents depended on the support of their children for their very subsistence.

Another example is that of Article 632 of the Code, where a person making a will can disinherit a descendant on various grounds, including abandonment and ill-treatment. Again, no age is directly indicated and, no doubt, adults of any age can make wills. However, the perceived vulnerability of older persons comes out clearly from such a provision in the Civil Code, albeit only concerning ‘things’ rather than ‘person’.

From the perspective of the Sociology of Law, it is possible to learn a good deal about the values and culture of a society simply by observing the language of the black-letter law. Therefore, within the context of ageism and the legal rights of older persons, one can argue: “Show me your laws and I’ll know how ageist you are”.

Photo credit: Pixabay

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