Will fathers have their day?

“They fuck you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean to, but
they do.” These opening lines to a Philip Larkin poem ring only too
true during acrimonious custody battles between separating parents
who use contact with their children as a way of settling

Each year between 150,000 and 200,000 couples with children
separate. Only 10 per cent of separating couples have their contact
arrangements ordered by courts. But more disputes between parents
are going that way. Last year, courts in England and Wales made
67,000 contact orders. The non-resident parent – usually the father
– initiates most contact cases.

Putting parents who are already at odds with each other into an
adversarial court environment is not the obvious way to achieve a
harmonious outcome. Earlier this year the government, perhaps
recognising this, published a green paper to shake up the way
family courts intervene in disputed contact cases.1 The
main gripes against the present system are that:

  • The law – or its interpretation – does not encourage
    non-resident parents to have a strong, continuing relationship with
    their child.
  • Some resident parents feel frustrated that the other parent
    makes insufficient effort to keep in touch with their child.
  • Some non-resident parents feel they have not been given
    adequate contact when they have been fully involved in their
    child’s care before separation.
  • Some non-resident parents feel the courts are biased toward the
    status quo by favouring the resident parent and that delays in
    arriving at decisions exacerbate this tendency.

Many believe that intervention to help relationships to survive
is needed far earlier. The Family Welfare Association’s director of
services, Honor Rhodes, says: “If we could intervene earlier we
wouldn’t be in the position of talking about contact.”

Rhodes thinks detailed research is needed on fathering and what it
means, and on what makes families stay together. “Often when people
talk about parenting they mean mothering,” she says. One problem is
that social care is a female-dominated profession. “It can be hard
for female workers to think about fathers. It’s a training issue, a
gender issue, a social care issue.”

What is not in question are the benefits that fathers’ involvement
in their children’s lives can bring. Conversely, research shows
that conflict around custody rights can have a damaging

Some fathers’ organisations want a change in the law to include a
“presumption of contact” to give parents equal rights to equal time
with their child after they have separated. The government
disagrees. The green paper states: “What is needed are changes in
adult behaviour in settling their disputes and significant changes
to the system to provide more effective help to enable them to do

Fathers Direct, the national information centre on fatherhood,
agrees with the government’s call. Rather than a change in the law,
it wants a change in the culture and practice of the family courts.
Co-founder Jack O’Sullivan says: “The courts aren’t operating in
the best interests of the child because of the tendency to be slow
and to undervalue the relationship between children and the
non-resident parent, typically the father.

“We want to work towards a system where children see plenty of both
parents after separation and a system which reduces litigation,
because children are traumatised by it.”

According to O’Sullivan, this is precisely what the green paper
aims to do. Crucially, it sets out what the government would
consider reasonable contact for a non-resident parent for the first
time. “One reason we have so much litigation is because there is no
legal definition of ‘reasonable time’,” says O’Sullivan. “Some
non-resident parents fight for years to get what is outlined in the
green paper, so it’s a huge step forward.”

The goal, he says, is to settle contact disputes early on without a
court hearing – something he thinks the green paper will achieve.
“Our understanding of the green paper is that what is considered
reasonable and sensible is giving plenty of time to the
non-resident parent.”

But, as O’Sullivan acknowledges, not all fathers’ groups feel the
same. Fathers 4 Justice – the campaigning group known for its
demonstrations by fathers dressed as superheroes – falls into this

Founder Matt O’Connor says: “The green paper is a hollow sham of a
document. At best it recycles the Children Act and at worst it
likens the principles of equality of parents to divvying up a CD
collection. In no way does it address any of the key problems that
fathers, grandparents and children have demonstrated day in, day
out, in courts.”

These problems, he says, include courts failing to enforce contact
orders. O’Connor has personal experience of the situation. After an
acrimonious divorce, his ex-wife, with whom he now gets on well,
prevented him seeing his two sons. Eventually, he took her to
court. “Nothing can prepare you for the experience. You go from
living with them and seeing them all the time to having a court
order to see them at specific times. You feel criminalised and that
your rights have been violated.

“It’s a living bereavement. People don’t see the human fallout and
that’s what makes me so angry. We pick up the pieces and nobody
gives a shit.”

Because of the conflict, O’Connor saw his sons in a contact centre
on alternate weekends. He believes that the plans to expand these
centres – outlined in the green paper – perpetuate the myth that
fathers cannot be trusted with their own children.

Some argue that dressing as superheroes and scaling buildings or
pelting Tony Blair with flour-filled condoms does not exactly help
their cause. But O’Connor is quick to justify the group’s more
extremist action: “What would you do if I took your kids off you in
the high street? You would do anything.” He continues: “The secrecy
of the family courts prevents you discussing your case even after
it is over. That makes it impossible for many fathers to highlight
miscarriages of justice. Most people think it can’t be that bad and
they must have done something wrong.”

Fathers 4 Justice wants mandatory mediation, so parents are
motivated to reach out-of-court solutions. The group also wants
stronger enforcement penalties if court orders are flouted. “We
need a system where people have respect for the law,” O’Connor
adds. “We would like to see not just a tinkering with the family
courts system. I would like to raze it to the ground and start
again. We need a revolution.

“I don’t want our campaign to be judged. I want our children to be
our judge and if we have to climb buildings and close roads then
let the roads be closed. As long as it’s peaceful, it’s our duty to
break the law. Nothing is more important than the bond between
parents and children.” CC

1 DfES/DCA/DTI, Parental
Separation: Children’s Needs and Parents’ Responsibilities

Green paper proposals 

  • A revision of existing parenting plans to include examples of
    good contact arrangements to promote earlier resolution.  
  • Changes to the role of Cafcass, including reducing the number
    of reports it is commissioned to do which contribute to
  • Better case management by the courts so cases do not
  • Legislation to improve enforcement powers if court orders are
  • Access to general legal advice on relationship breakdown
    through a telephone helpline service, a new family legal aid scheme
    and accreditation for solicitors who advise on family
  • Run a pilot under collaborative law, where both parents’
    lawyers are committed to promoting settlements. They cannot take
    the case to court if this fails; instead another solicitor is
  • Extension of in-court conciliation services.

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