UK Family Law Reform

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Putting mummy in the stocks

The Guardian - 19th January 2005

By caving in to Batman, a real opportunity has been missed

Batman will soon claim his first maternal scalp - to the good of no one, least of all the children. Today three cabinet ministers, led by the education secretary Ruth Kelly, will announce concessions to groups, such as Fathers4Justice, campaigning for greater rights of access to their children.

Divorced mothers who defy court orders will be tagged and kept to a night-time curfew. They may be fined - a great help to children probably already reared on a much reduced family budget. Or ordered to spend Saturday afternoons doing community service while dad has the offspring (as if mothers need to be reminded what it means to give selflessly).

Fathers4Justice isn't happy because it still means mothers will escape jail, while its demand for 50:50 custody has also been ignored. Still, in terms of children's welfare and family law, these proposals are disastrous. Far from easing the relationship between father and child, they will turn mothers into martyrs, adding to a child's guilt. This policing of family life is all the more reprehensible because a constructive alternative is available. It is one that could genuinely improve life for the children of parents who live apart. Except that the scheme, the Early Interventions project (EI), has now effectively been buried as a result of Whitehall turf wars and civil service infighting.

EI, based on a successful model used in Florida, has three key features. First, in families where the child is not at risk from a parent's behaviour, it is automatically assumed that he or she will spend between 70 to 100 nights a year with the non-resident parent. Second, couples attend mandatory courses that help them to understand the impact if a child is turned into a weapon in a post-matrimonial war. Third (and rarely employed), if a parent persistently refuses to comply with contact arrangements, then punishment follows.

The British version welcomed a new partnership between courts and child development experts. Crucially, it also set a common baseline for contact, of up to 100 days per year with the non-resident parent, backed by the lever of the law and parental education.

In October 2003, EI arrived at the Department for Education and Skills as a pilot project with ministerial backing. But in the hands of civil servants it underwent an Alice in Wonderland conversion. Without discussion or review (in contrast to the eight years it took to formulate EI), the scheme was renamed - it is now called the Family Resolutions project - and the basic premise discarded.

It now operates under the ridiculous maxim that "every case is different", the very antithesis of the Florida philosophy. And, since every case is different, the opportunity to ensure a real cultural shift towards a child's right to maintain contact with both parents - who are also required to behave like grown-ups towards each other - has been lost.

The Family Resolutions project isn't all bad. It requires parents "to refocus on the child's needs"; it is retraining the judiciary and it teaches conflict management. But it has scuppered the chance to build a fresh consensus in this divorce-prone society; to build a society that acknowledges that it is best that a child maintains regular, good-quality contact with the non-resident parent.

The government claims that only a small minority of parents use the law in conflictual contact arrangements. According to the most recent figures, from 2001, 146,914 children in England Wales experienced the divorce of their parents. That number is swelled by the children of cohabiting adults who separate. In 2002, more than 65,000 parents issued contact applications to see their children or see more of them - and at least 4,000 a year defy a court order. That adds up to a lot of conflict, often prolonged in the courts for several years.

Is there any chance of a happy ending? Caroline Willbourne, a family law judge, has made the sensible proposal that the original Early Intervention project be restored, under independent management and out of civil-service control, and monitored in a pilot scheme alongside Family Resolutions to see which is more effective.

The map of family life is changing. According to recent research by the Office of National Statistics, 17% of separated fathers have some form of daily contact, 49% have weekly contact, and 69% have monthly contact. Inevitably, some fathers - and mothers - will fracture a child's heart by failing to turn up or by removing themselves permanently from the family. But bad behaviour by the few shouldn't deter public endorsement of the rule that it's better for a child when parental bonds are maintained.

Instead, the government has opted to put mummy in the stocks. That will achieve nothing except to turn matriarchs into militants and create needless misery for yet more children.

"The cost to the good citizens for their indifference in public affairs is to be ruled by evil men"

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