Parens patriae is Latin for "parent of the nation" (lit., "parent of the fatherland"). In law, it refers to the public policy power of the state to intervene against an abusive or negligent parent, legal guardian or informal caretaker, and to act as the parent of any child or individual who is in need of protection. For example, some children, incapacitated individuals, and disabled individuals lack parents who are able and willing to render adequate care, thus requiring state intervention.
In U.S. litigation, parens patriae can be invoked by the state to create its standing to sue; the state declares itself to be suing on behalf of its people. For example, the Hart-Scott-Rodino Antitrust Improvement Act of 1976 (15 USC 15c), through Section 4C of the Clayton Act, permits state attorneys general to bring parens patriae suits on behalf of those injured by violations of the Sherman Antitrust Act.
Parens patriae relates to a notion initially invoked by the King's Bench in the sixteenth century in cases of non compos mentis adults. The notion dates from at least 1608, as recorded in Coke's Report of Calvin's Case, wherein it is said "that moral law, honora patrem...doubtless doth extend to him that is pater patriœ."
The parens patriae doctrine was gradually applied to children throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and has since evolved from one granting absolute rights to the sovereign to one more associated with rights and obligations of the state and courts towards children and incapacitated adults.
In most jurisdictions, this appears in the principle that makes the protection of the best interests of any child the first and single most important concern of the courts. For example, in any proceedings affecting the validity of a marriage, the children will not be parties in their own right, nor will they be parties to any agreement that the spouses may make. In these proceedings, the courts will often be invited to accept and enforce any agreement between a husband and wife regarding parental responsibility for their children. This will usually be done so long as the agreement is seen to be in the best interests and welfare of the children. Courts are not obliged to invoke the parens patriae doctrine in cases involving children and not all courts, particularly newer courts such as the Australian Family Court (est 1975), have specific parens patriae jurisdiction.
In the United States, invocation of the Parens Patriae Doctrine is constrained by the constitutional Parental Liberty Doctrine. This has the effect of limiting civil rights abuses caused by unjustified government interference with minors.
In some situations, the parties may have submitted their dispute to formal arbitration proceedings. Such proceedings, whether judicial or quasi-judicial, cannot displace the supervisory power of the court in the exercise of its parens patriae function to the child. To the extent that such an award conflicts with the best interests of the child, the courts will treat it as void in respect of the child, even though it might be binding on the parents. The test of the best interests of the child can always be the basis of a challenge by a parent, grandparent, an interested relative, or the child acting through a friend.
Thus, for example, the spouses might already have been through a religious form of divorce known as the get before the Beth Din, the Jewish rabbinical court, which included provision for the children. Even though there might appear to be a grant of custody in absolute terms by this court, public policy always requires that it can be reviewed by a secular court and, if the state court is of the view that it is not in the best interests of the child, it will be set aside (see Stanley G. v. Eileen G. New York Law Journal, 10-13-94, P.22, Col.6, Sup. Ct., NY Co.).
Within the EU, the right of the child to be heard in any proceedings is a fundamental right provided in Article 24 Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. The views of the child shall be considered on matters which concern them in accordance with their age and maturity. It also provides that the child's best interest shall be the primary consideration in all actions relating to children, whether taken by public authorities or private institutions.
The same principles apply to individuals whose mental capacity is impaired and who are being abused by carers or other individuals, whether family members or otherwise. Since these individuals cannot protect themselves, the courts have an inherent jurisdiction to appoint a guardian ad litem for particular proceedings. In English Law, long-term care is arranged through the Court of Protection.
- Suing the Tobacco and Lead Pigment Industries: Government Litigation as Public Health Prescription by Donald G. Gifford. Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 2010. ISBN 978-0-472-11714-7
- Lat: not having control over the mind or intellect. Not of sound mind; insane. See 108 A. 2d 820, 822. In certain circumstances its effect is lessened to mean only "not legally competent." See 1 S.E. 2d 768, 770. Compare diminished capacity; incompetent; non sui juris.
- Sir Edward Coke; John Henry Thomas; John Farquhar Fraser (1826). The Reports of Sir Edward Coke, Knt. [1572-1617]: In Thirteen Parts. J. Butterworth and Son. pp. 21–. Retrieved 4 July 2013.
- People v. Bennett: Analytic Approaches to Recognizing a Fundamental Parental Right Under the Ninth Amendment, 1996 BYU Law Review 186, 227-34
- Removing Classrooms from the Battlefield: Liberty, Paternalism, and the Redemptive Promise of Educational Choice, 2008 BYU Law Review 377, 386 n.30
- Parens Patriae -- Quaqua Society