UK Family Law Reform

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Family law reforms will sow confusion, senior Lib Dem tells David Cameron

Prime minister is attacked over plan to insert statement encouraging shared parenting in Children Act 1989

Sir Alan Beith said the changes could make divorcing parents believe they had a right to equal time with children.

David Cameron has been accused by a senior Liberal Democrat of sowing legal confusion by "fundamentally" misunderstanding the shared parenting reforms he is promoting.

In a strongly worded letter to the prime minister, Sir Alan Beith, veteran chair of the Commons justice committee, lambasts the government for refusing to engage with critics and ignoring well-researched evidence.

Couples who are divorcing or separating will find the experience more traumatic because of conflicting expectations raised by reform of the Children Act 1989, he warns. The insertion of a statement encouraging "shared parenting" is legislation designed merely "to remove a perception which has no foundation in fact".

His fierce criticism is further evidence of tensions within the coalition government. The tone of the attack is all the more remarkable coming from a politician renowned for his normally circumspect approach to political differences.

The letter, released for publication and also sent to the Ministry of Justice and the Department for Education, has been written by Beith in his capacity as chair of the parliamentary committee, which contains five Conservative MPs as well as Labour and Plaid Cymru members.

His comments reflect widespread unease within the legal and family support services about the proposed changes. Unveiling the reforms last month, the children's minister, Tim Loughton, explained: "We want the law to be far more explicit about the importance of children having an ongoing relationship with both their parents after separation, where that is safe and in the child's best interests."

The minister also acknowledged: "This is categorically not about giving parents equal right to time with their children – it is about reinforcing society's expectation that mothers and fathers should be jointly responsible for their children's upbringing." The prime minister has been seen as supportive of the changes.

In his letter to Cameron, however, Beith, who represents the border constituency of Berwick-upon-Tweed, expressed strong opposition. "Like the Family Justice Review, [the justice select committee] concluded that the idea of promoting shared parenting by changing the wording of the Children Act 1989 was seriously flawed," he wrote.

"To promote shared parenting through legislation undermines the paramount principle of the welfare of the child … It would be wrong, by a change in the law, to imply that parents have rights over children rather than responsibilities for children.

"A legislative statement, however drafted, which inserts concepts for furthering 'involvement', will be equated in the minds of warring parents as a right to equality of time.

"Attempting to further parental involvement in cases [that reach court] by changing legislation is to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of the issues in these cases.

"Extensive litigation seems likely to result from parties litigating to reconcile two competing principles – the welfare of the child and the duty to promote shared parenting.

"[The committee] remain of the view that the introduction of a statement will simply lead to confusion, and will risk undermining the central principle of the Children Act 1989 that the welfare of the child is paramount."

Resolution, the association which represents family lawyers, backed Beith's letter. A spokesperson said: "These proposals could result in more litigation, more conflict, and more confusion, regardless of the government's intentions.

"Our members encourage clients to ensure the child's best interests remain at the forefront, during what can often be a difficult and traumatic time for families. Our concern is that if the government gets this wrong, they risk focusing on parents' rights rather than the best interests of children."

A government spokesman said: "We want to strengthen the law so both parents can be actively involved in their children's lives, only where it is safe and in their best interests. We are consulting in detail on how we can legislate to do that and are listening carefully to all views."

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