Time limit on bringing actions to investigate paternity
Right to know one’s genetic origins
Right to personal identity
Right to family life
RULING Nº 456/03
14 of October of 2003
The limitation of the right to have natural descent established should not be detrimental to that right. In other words, notwithstanding the fact that the imposition of limits, particularly time-limits, on the exercise of the right to bring an action to establish paternity may be criticised from a constitutional point of view, a restriction which, in practice, denies a person any possibility of establishing their natural descent is certainly not admissible.
The rule which, on the basis of objective time-limits, precludes the establishment of paternity in cases where the grounds for bringing the action do not become apparent until after those time-limits have passed, is disproportionate and violates the right to personal identity.
This case concerns the constitutionality of a provision preventing a person who, during the limitation period, had no reason or ground to question or cast doubt on their descent, which was legally established and duly registered at the time, from bringing an action to establish paternity after the time-limit has passed. Is it therefore admissible from a constitutional point of view that a rule should prevent a person aged 20 or over (in this case, aged 31), who is surprised by the bringing of an action by a third party (in this case, the presumed father) to disclaim paternity, from seeking to establish paternity? The answer is no.
The right to personal identity is enshrined in Article 26 of the Constitution. The central element of this right is the possibility for every person to know their ancestry, particularly their natural descent. To this end, the law sets out legal mechanisms designed to enable people to exercise this right, allowing them to establish their descent (maternity, paternity), so that everyone can identify their ancestors in order, inter alia, to establish their legal descent on the basis of biological ties.
In this type of situation, the provision in question effectively prevents people from knowing who their father is, even though they would have been able to find out at a time when legal action "could not really" be brought because there was no reason to do so. It is therefore unconstitutional. Indeed, it is not admissible under the Constitution (in accordance with Articles 8.3 and 26.1 of the Constitution) that a person should be denied any possibility of legally establishing their biological descent following an action to disclaim paternity.
The Constitutional Court has already ruled on the constitutionality of the provisions in Article 1817 of the Civil Code, insofar as they lay down a time-limit for proceedings to establish paternity. It has always concluded that the time restriction on the exercise of the right to have paternity legally established (see Judgments nos. 99/88, 413/89, 451/89, 311/95 and 506/99) is not unconstitutional. In its previous rulings, the Constitutional Court has deemed the establishment, according to objective, inflexible criteria, of a deadline for the bringing of an action to establish paternity and the setting of a date a quo to be legitimate for reasons of legal certainty and security. However, the unusual situation in the case in question means that it differs substantially from those previously dealt with.