A recent ruling by the Supreme Court that the paternity of a child cannot be revoked even when DNA tests disprove any biological relationship points to the need — as the top court justices themselves suggest — for reviewing the Civil Code in ways that clear up the legal confusion and protect the interests of children.

In a 3-2 decision by the five justices on its First Petty Bench, the top court on July 17 reversed lower court rulings in two of the three cases in which the legal paternity of children has been challenged by DNA test results that suggest they are not biologically related to their presumed fathers. The Supreme Court ruled that DNA test results alone do not override the Civil Code provision that a child conceived by the wife during marriage shall be presumed to be the child of her husband, saying that there is a need to maintain stability of the child’s legal status despite the proven lack of blood ties to his or her presumed father.

In both of the two cases, the wife gave birth to a child with a man other than her husband during their marriage, and after leaving the husband — through formal divorce in one case — and living with the other man and the child, sought to have the former partner’s paternal relationship with the child revoked on the basis of a DNA test that “99.99 percent” disproved their blood ties. The district court and the high court had ruled in favor of the wife, saying that DNA test results are the “ultimate truth” that overrides the Civil Code provision.

The provision that presumes paternity of the child conceived during marriage dates back to 1898, when the original Civil Code was introduced. Only the husband can take legal action seeking to negate the paternity within a year after learning of the child’s birth. The Supreme Court had earlier ruled that the provision would not be applied when there is no effective marital relationship between husband and wife, such as when they live separately far away from each other. In its latest decision, the top court said DNA tests denying the blood ties cannot be counted among such exceptions.

Before DNA tests existed, the provision helped quickly establish the paternity of a newborn child and secure a stable environment for the child’s growth. It secured a father for the newborn in legal terms — with or without blood ties — and legally compelled him to care for the child. The rule was intended to protect the interest of the child by stabilizing his or her legal status even when the identity of the biological father of the child was contested.

Today, DNA test results are reportedly used in most of the hundreds of cases in which paternity of children is contested in family courts each year, and most people are said to give up their paternity when they learn that they have no blood ties to the children. The Civil Code provision can create a situation where the biological father of a child is not allowed to claim legal paternity — in ways that may not entirely benefit the welfare of the child.

The fact that lower courts and the Supreme Court reached different conclusions — and that two of the top court justices gave dissenting opinions to the ruling — indicates that there are no clear-cut answers to the issue. The justices with the dissenting views said they doubted that the child who lives with his or her biological father and has a legal father somewhere else can have a “natural or stable relationship.”

The Supreme Court ruled that the Civil Code provision is still relevant. Still, four of the five justices referred to the need for legislative measures to fill the gap between the legal system and today’s social realities. Blood ties are not everything in familial relationships, and what benefits the child most may differ in each case. The issue needs to be carefully considered, but the bottom line should be on how to secure the welfare of children as family relationships become diverse in today’s society.

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