Justice fails fathers, says judge

By Frances Gibb 

The Times

April 2, 2004

A HIGH COURT judge has thrown his weight behind claims that the family justice system fails fathers who seek contact with their children.

Mr Justice Munby, took the unusual step of making public yesterday what would normally have been a private ruling in the case of a father who has been prevented from seeing his daughter since October 2001.

He said that judges needed to heed public opinion over failings in the system and urged sweeping changes in the way courts deal with applications by parents for contact, including three-day jail sentences for mothers who breach court orders.

The father had to abandon his five-year battle for contact with his seven-year-old daughter described by the judge as an "exercise in absolute futility" after unfounded allegations by his ex-wife, who did not comply with court orders.

The judge, a respected Family Division judge who is married with a son and daughter, castigated courts for failing to take urgent and tough steps in such cases and warned against a "flabby judicial response" His judgment will boost the growing lobby of fathers battling with the family courts and resorting to desperate tactics. They have staged a series of high-profile protests.

The judge said: "Those who are critical of our family justice system may well see this case as exemplifying everything that is wrong with the system. I can understand such a view."

He also admitted that when the system fails "and fail it does" it is more often fathers, not the mothers, who are the "victims of that failure". The judge said that the "wholly deserving father" had left his court in tears after abandoning his five year court fight. The couple separated in November 1998. Almost immediately there were problems with contact and, Mr Justice Munby said, since the end of 2001 there had been only "far from satisfactory" indirect contact through letters and cards.

The judge was in effect powerless to help the father, whose last contact with the child had been in October 2001, so it was no longer in the child's best interests be taken from her mother. The judge went on: "I am sorry there is nothing more I can do."

The judge made a public apology to the father, who was described as a warm and caring man, and his daughter.

"Whether an improved system would have provided a better outcome for this child and this father is now almost impossible to know. But they were denied the chance of a better outcome and for that they deserve a public, albeit necessarily anonymous, apology. We failed them. The system failed them."

Matt O'Connor, of Fathers 4 Justice, said that the judgment was "jaw-dropping".

" Twelve months ago, such a judgment would have been unthinkable," he added. "But let no one forget that despite his words, the outcome was still the same. Another father has lost his child today."

The judge said he was making his judgment and feelings public because of the "ongoing debate about the role of the courts in contact and residence orders".

In a damning criticism of the mother, Mr Justice Munby said: "It needs to be said clearly and firmly: the primary, indeed the overwhelming, responsibility for all this lies at mother's door, and mother's door alone."

The father was "a genuine and sincere father who loves his daughter and has her interest very much at heart".

She was given a suspended sentence for failing to comply with the contact orders in April 2000 and was jailed a year later for "flagrant breach of court orders".

He said the problem of mothers failing to obey contact orders could perhaps be "nipped in the bud" by short sentences of up to three days which would have a deterrent effect without harming her ability to look after the child.