The clue to the potential revolution in “full and frequent contact”
in the government’s green paper on parental separation comes in
paragraph fifty-five. There, it lays out an equation – alternate
weekend; one evening a week; a part of the holidays – which add up
to around one hundred days, or a third of a child’s year.
It’s not the 50:50 split the militant group Fathers4Justice demand
so we can expect a summer of Spidermen. But as Lord Falconer the
constitutional affairs secretary points out: “Children cannot be
divided like the furniture or the CD collection.” Sadly, some
adults will still have a damn good try.
In three pilot projects which start this September, parents who
apply for court orders – around 20,000 a year – will be directed to
in-court conciliation, working with a reinvigorated Children and
Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass).
All professionals, including judges, will have training in six core
competencies, to ensure that, in theory at least, the interests of
the children really do come first. These competencies include a
shared knowledge of child development, the relevance of listening
properly to children and the demands of sharing information.
What’s refreshing is the government’s acknowledgement that radical
change requires more than pilots and paper commitment. What’s also
essential is a common course of retraining to ensure that
attitudes, moulded in a different era, really are challenged.
Worries inevitably remain. How will contact work for the cohabiting
father? New research shows that 77.4 per cent of people wrongly
believe that a father automatically has a right to make decisions
about his child’s future, regardless of whether or not he is
The second concern is domestic violence. Four out of 10 contested
cases involve allegations of physical abuse. Under the new scheme,
the judge will decide who is telling the truth and what action to
take. That seems inadequate. An independent investigation – not
conducted by Cafcass which needs to hold fast to its conciliatory
role – should ascertain the degree of violence. Where it’s present,
contact should be ended, or limited and highly supervised.
Research tells us that the younger children of violent parents
often assume that parenting, marriage and violence naturally go
Ironically, one of the spin-offs from this new attitude to contact
may well be more strenuous attempts to salvage relationships still
capable of healing. And that may be the best news of all for