Hereditary Peerage Association
A Debate on the right of children born out of wedlock to succeed to peerages.
This debate was initiated by a letter from Mr Simon Tomlin to Lord Newall which is reproduced (subject to minor editing) as the introduction to the debate:
SIMON TOMLIN: My Lords, I was interested to read extracts of the debate on
Peerage Succession on the HPA website and one thing that immediately struck me
was the rights of illegitimate children to succeed their fathers.
In past times, before the advent of DNA testing, illegitimate sons could not succeed to a peerage as no concrete evidence could ever be found to prove paternity. However in the modern age, with DNA testing widely available to anyone, paternity can be proved conclusively. It should translate therefore that the illegitimate sons of peers should succeed their fathers. After all, in cases where paternity is proved, there should be no barrier to succession, irrespective of whether the child is born in or out of wedlock.
It strikes me very clearly that if the peerage system is to survive, it needs to evolve to meet the demands of the modern age. At a time when the peerage system is deeply unpopular and disgraced by the activities of a few life peers, there should be a willingness on the part of peers to recognise their illegitimate progeny who carry the same 'Y' DNA on the paternal line.
I am also aware that all attempts to reform the peerage system along these lines have been rejected by an Establishment that simply does not want to evolve. Yet the incontrovertible laws of nature are such that all living entities must evolve or perish. This is the Rubicon at which the peerage system in Britain now stands....
Therefore taking into account the proposals to allow women to succeed to the peerage, I would be grateful for your opinions on the rights of illegitimate progeny to succeed to the peerage. I reiterate that DNA testing has blown away all the former hiding places for errant fathers, not just peers. (22.06.09)
TORRINGTON: My lords, Mr Tomlin has raised an extremely important subject
and I hope that many of your lordships will contribute their views. My immediate
thought is that at some stage, an heir, presently debarred by illegitimacy, may
well take a case on this matter to the European Court. While there is no
guarantee that he would win, recent judgments would suggest that he would have a
good chance of success. Indeed, as we noted from the previous debate on female
succession, there is a strong chance that peerage law could be altered by the
Court in favour of the eldest heir of either sex. It is a small step from there
to admitting the eldest child, in or out of wedlock, to the peerage.
I think Mr Tomlin is broadly correct in saying that DNA testing provides definitive evidence of paternity. Given that the history of the peerage is littered with alleged, but naturally unproven, cases of succession by heirs born in wedlock but of paternity other than their predecessor in title, it might well be that DNA evidence of paternity should be provided by all heirs, legitimate or illegitimate.
Mr Tomlin talks about the institution of the peerage needing to evolve, and its unpopularity following recent conflict-of-interest and expenses scandals. I am not sure that I would agree with the contention that the peerage is deeply unpopular as a whole but I suspect that the new Establishment would prefer to see the peerage wither rather than evolve and the problem with particularly changes to allow female succession, is that they would be likely to prolong the life of the institution. Succession by illegitimate offspring might well upset some existing expectations as well as also prolonging the life of the institution..
Perhaps the greatest problem with further evolution of peerage law is that today there are few hereditary peers in parliament and little interest in these matters among life peers who are unaffected by such considerations. (05.07.09)