Conciliate or else

    The vociferous fathers’ lobby and changing expectations of
    fatherhood generally made reform of post-separation contact
    arrangements inevitable. That the government has taken a pragmatic
    view, ignoring those fathers’ groups that would insist on a 50/50
    split in parental contact, is to its credit. And it was also right
    to announce the measures in the context of wider changes to the
    family courts.

    Wisely the Department for Constitutional Affairs has tried to
    put the emphasis on mediation and conciliation, although it might
    be asked whether this is based on a pious hope or a serious
    appraisal of the circumstances in which parental separations come
    to court in the first place. Only one in 10 separations where
    children are involved go to court at all, often when all hope of a
    sensible dialogue has vanished. Lord Falconer, the constitutional
    affairs secretary, says mediation will be voluntary, but when this
    option fails the only alternative will be a court hearing, in all
    likelihood followed by one of a new panoply of enforcement
    procedures.

    There will also be misgivings about the role of the Children and
    Family Court Advisory and Support Service. Even as Falconer talked
    about extending Cafcass’s role to in-court conciliation in child
    custody proceedings, children’s minister Margaret Hodge told the
    Commons constitutional affairs committee that this could detract
    from its public law work with vulnerable children.

    While there will be more emphasis on fathers, the measures stop
    short of a legal presumption of co-parenting, a proposal put
    forward by the Conservatives. Such a step would only deepen concern
    about contact where families have a history of domestic violence
    and make it harder to contest the claims of violent fathers on
    their children. But the government should have gone further in the
    other direction. It has allowed courts to be informed about
    domestic violence at the beginning of a case, but it should also
    have insisted that contact could only occur after it had been
    explicitly assessed as safe.

    In general, though, this shake-up of the family court, combined
    in the longer term with greater openness of its proceedings, will
    do much to restore confidence in the system.

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