UK Family Law Reform

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Divorced parents to be given automatic access to children

By Gaby Hinsliff, political editor

The Observer - Sunday 13th November 2005

Divorced parents will be given an automatic right to see their children under rebel plans expected to be forced through the House of Lords this week.

Children's charities have warned that the move, backed by militant fathers' groups, will put children at risk from violent parents or those seeking revenge following bitter divorces.

The NSPCC says 29 children have been killed during contact visits to an estranged parent in the past decade, so courts are already failing to heed their interests. The welfare of the child should be put before the desires of the parent, the charity argues.

'Taking contact for granted undermines the principle that the welfare of the child must be paramount,' said Mary Marsh, its chief executive.

'The NSPCC believes that without thorough safety checks and an unambiguous message that the safety of the child comes first, these proposals will hinder efforts to ensure the welfare of the child is maintained.'

The row centres on the Children and Adoption Bill, which goes before the Lords tomorrow. Conservative and Liberal Democrat peers have tabled amendments creating an 'automatic presumption of contact' when parents split up. The government is opposing this, but it is expected to lose when the issue goes to a vote.

If that happens, ministers will try to overturn the reform in the Commons, triggering a conflict between the two chambers.

The fathers' groups have vowed to pursue their point. Matthew O'Connor of Fathers 4 Justice said only parents who are a proven danger to their children should be exempt from a presumption in favour of both parents having access.

'It should be about maintaining the status quo before separation. In the most forward-thinking parts of the US, kids are spending one week with mum and one week with dad,' he said.

The amendments tabled by Baroness Morris and Lord Howe would require courts to act on the presumption 'that a child's welfare is best served through residence with his parents and, if his parents are not living together, through sole residence with one parent or shared residence with both of them, and through both of them being as fully and equally involved in his parenting as possible.'

Ministers fear this creates a presumption of contact, and opens the door to parents sharing custody equally. 'We have taken legal advice and these amendments all give a court an assumption of contact,' said a senior source at the Department for Education and Skills. 'What's best for the child should be the overriding principle.'

In the past two years alone, 10 children have been killed by parents on access visits. Keith Young gassed his four young sons in his car in Cheshire in 2003 after his estranged partner Samantha started another relationship. Young, 38, forced her to listen on his mobile as the boys succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning, telling her it was her fault they were dying.

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