In a landmark ruling Wednesday, the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional the Civil Code clause that denies full inheritance rights to heirs born out of wedlock.
The decision will lead to a long-overdue revision of the provision, the first time it will have been changed since it took effect in 1898.
Under the current law, such heirs are entitled to inherit only half the worth of an estate handed down to their “legitimate” siblings. The Supreme Court’s decision represents a hard-fought victory for “illegitimate” children who have for years called for the eradication of the discriminatory inheritance law.
Chief Justice Hironobu Takesaki described the current situation as “unreasonable” given the increasing diversification of families in Japanese society and the changing social perception of the concept of marriage.
“Even though the system of legalized marriage has long been considered the norm in Japanese society, the fact remains children themselves have no control whatsoever over their parents’ nonlegal marital status,” Takesake said, adding it is unforgivable that these heirs have to suffer a negative impact because of this.
“It will be safe to say the social trend is now toward respecting them as an individual and securing their rights,” he said.
It is the first time for the top court to declare that a clause in the Civil Code is unconstitutional.
The decision was unanimous among the 14 justices who took part in Wednesday’s session. One out of the 15-member Grand Bench, Itsuro Terada, did not join, due to a conflict of interest in a past assignment at the Civil Bureau of the Justice Ministry.
Taking into account diversified public views on family situations and the global trend to eliminate discrimination, the clause violated the Constitution as far back as July 2001, the bench said, adding that inheritance claims will not be retroactive for cases already settled.
The unanimous decision by the top court was in response to two separate claims filed by people in Tokyo and Wakayama Prefecture who were born out of wedlock whose fathers died in 2001. They argued that being deprived of full inheritance rights amounts to an infringement of the principle of unconditional legal equality.
In both cases, the plaintiffs saw their claims turned down at the district and high court levels.
Media reports quoted the plaintiffs as saying during a session of the Supreme Court in July that they find it intolerable to be discriminated against due to “circumstances beyond their control.” The defendants, who held the legal status of being the “legitimate” children of deceased fathers, stressed that the Civil Code as it now stands reflects Japan’s traditional favor for legal marriage and should not be changed.
After the ruling was announced, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters that the administration will submit a bill to the Diet to revise the Civil Code to reflect the Supreme Court’s decision.
“We will view the judgment of the Supreme Court with utmost seriousness,” Suga told his regularly scheduled news conference. “We will consider necessary legal measures to fully respect the meaning of the decision.”
Asked if the administration will move quickly enough to submit the bill during the extraordinary legislative session that starts next month, Suga declined comment on the timing.
The origin of the inheritance disparity dates back to 1898. After surviving the postwar reforms intact, it first underwent major scrutiny by the Supreme Court’s Grand Bench in 1995. The 15-member bench at that time found the stipulation constitutional in a vote of 10 to 5 on the grounds “its acknowledgement of half heirship for illegitimate children rather means their rights are protected.”
The decision set a precedent for similar cases in subsequent years. The provision was examined again by the court’s PettyBench five different times, but each time the five-justice panel decided it was constitutional, although sometimes by a narrow margin.
In a revisionist move, a legislative council under the Justice Ministry concluded in 1996 that inheritance rights must be made equal regardless of the situation surrounding one’s birth.
The proposal, however, was dismissed by the conservative Liberal Democratic Party, which said this might undermine the nation’s traditional family values and possibly encourage marital infidelity.
The number of illegitimate children, which in 1995 stood at 14,000, rose by 1.6 percent to 23,000 in 2011, according to a survey by the welfare ministry.
Outside the court, Mikiko Ikeda, 65, who has a relationship with a man with whom she is not legally married, excitedly hailed the historic news. A mother of two sons, Ikeda said she was truly relieved that the long-running imbroglio has been resolved while she is still alive.
“After the 1995 decision, when the provision was declared constitutional, I was severely disappointed in the Japanese judiciary’s inability to secure one of the most basic human rights for us,” Ikeda said. “So this is my dream come true.”