UK Family Law Reform

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'Parenting plans' to give separated fathers better access to children

Fathers are to be given better access rights to their children in the event of family break-ups, under new proposals from the Government.

New "parenting plans" for custody arrangements will be drawn up with the help of counsellors. The plans will assume that fathers should have reasonable access. Mothers could be ordered to attend counselling if they refuse to comply.

The proposals, contained in the Government's Green Paper on parental separation, are being seen as an olive branch to fathers who believe the family courts system is biased against them. Although they do not go as far as assuming a strict 50/50 split in contact, as demanded by groups such as Fathers 4 Justice, the reforms would give fathers far better access rights than at present.

The proposals were drawn up by the Department for Education and Skills, and firm announcements are expected in the new year. Lord Filkin, the Children and Families minister, said the reforms were designed to keep cases out of the courts and to encourage mothers to allow former partners access.

He told The Independent: "The obvious thing is that the courts are not the place forsorting out these disputes. It is about getting people to shift their behaviour and to accept that both parents play a part in bringing up their children. They may hate each other and think each other is a swine, but this is about the needs of the child, not the rights of the parent."

Lord Filkin said that, under current law, judges assumed that all cases involving child custody disputes were different and started with a "blank piece of paper" in resolving arguments. Under his new proposals, parents will first of all have access to parenting plan templates available online or from other outlets.

The templates will suggest custody plans for children of different ages and circumstances, depending on whether the parents live near each other and other issues. Lord Filkin said a typical plan for a five-year-old girl whose estranged parents lived in the same area could include custody arrangements where the non-resident parent saw her every other weekend, one evening during the week and shared holiday time. Parents who cannot agree on a parenting plan will have to go through a mediation process. If they still cannot agree, they will go into the "in-court conciliation'' process and could be ordered into a "family resolution project".

Under these projects, parents would have to submit to therapy with other parents and watch a hard-hitting video showing the effects of arguments on children. The legal aid system will also be tightenedto prevent parents dragging cases through the courts.

The proposals have been welcomed by moderate fathers' groups who believe the reforms will give them far better rights to access over their children.

Jack O'Sullivan, of the lobby group Fathers Direct, said: "Parenting plans offer a great opportunity for both parents to be properly involved and to have a say in the way their children are brought up."