April 06, 2004

Outraged fathers who made me think again
Marilyn Stowe's criticism of child custody protesters in The Times provoked a swift, strong and eventually moving response

  Marilyn Stowe

IT STARTED almost immediately. A torrent of angry e-mails from across Britain and several countries around the world blocking our office systems, a non-stop barrage of faxes clogging up our machines, hundreds of nuisance telephone calls swamping our switchboard and threatening letters to my home.

And the cause? An article I had written for The Times (Law, March 23) criticising some of the more extreme protests by the Fathers 4 Justice organisation in their campaign for fairer treatment under the law over access to their children.

My first thought was that this was nothing less than electronic harassment by those I had challenged and further proof of what I had been saying. My reaction was annoyance and frustration at this onslaught from faceless adversaries.

Despite toying with the idea of calling in the police, I decided instead to begin a dialogue with many of the angry men who had contacted me and I wrote to every one of them. In so doing, I changed my mind about the validity of their cause.

There was the schoolteacher whose access to his son was suddenly changed by a court from every other day to every other weekend, the father who has had no contact with his daughters for two years, the numerous fathers who have been reduced to mere visitors in their children’s lives and the fathers and grandparents too afraid to go to court because they fear that they will end up worse off.

I was moved by their stories and researched how other countries dealt with the issue. And I have now come to believe that many fathers are unfairly treated by the law in this country.

What became abundantly clear as I heard more and more of their stories was that here were men who had practised what successive governments had preached, taking an active, sharing role as a parent only to find themselves suddenly expunged from the daily lives of their children.

I have been a practising family lawyer for more than 20 years. I have dealt with every type of relationship breakdown. I represent equal numbers of men and women and because I work to achieve for my clients the satisfactory conclusion that they seek, I have been sheltered from the kind of resentment and sense of injustice that men in organisations such as Fathers 4 Justice clearly feel.

I believe that the time is right to consider the introduction of laws similar to those in California and Florida, and many other American states, where there is a presumption that when a relationship breaks down the children have a right to equal access to both parents.

This position is based on the understanding that contact is a positive experience and that children experiencing equal time with both parents are usually better adjusted than those in the sole custody of one parent. It eliminates the question of whether parents are entitled to see their children and instead focuses on the logistics of their doing so through a parenting plan. If one parent wants to change the joint residency, he or she has to convince a court that it is right to do so.

I believe that our laws, too, could enshrine this principal of equality. We do it now for financial settlements; we can do it with children.

The extent to which we need to change was summed up recently in a statement by the new chairman of the Solicitors Family Law Association. She told a conference that solicitors were regularly recommending “generous” parenting time that typically amounted to alternative weekends, a mid-week visit and shared holidays.

Those who contacted me would not regard such arrangements as generous when they have been used to spending every day with their children. In too many divorces, the child is viewed by one or both parents as a weapon. Government statistics say that 40 per cent of mothers “thwart” contact arrangements, with many fathers complaining that contact is damaged by their former partner’s conduct.

About 160,000 children a year are affected by divorce and some surveys report that up to 40 per cent of fathers lose all contact with their children after two years. Ninety per cent of child arrangements are settled by separating couples without court intervention. Despite this, the number of contact orders made by the courts has risen 50 per cent in five years to a total of 61,000 in 2002. But enforcing contact orders is often not practicable since imprisonment and fines on the offending parent are often detrimental to the children at the heart of the dispute. It is the law itself, not prison, that should provide the answer.

The Government recently announced a pilot project to encourage the use of mediation by separating parents. More than this is needed, however. Last week, in an admirably outspoken and honest admission of the system’s failings, Mr Justice Munby led the way in showing what must be done. It is time for the rest of us to admit that the law requires radical change and that we need to work towards that end.


The author is head of the family law unit at Grahame Stowe Bateson and chief assessor of the Law Society’s family law panel


You can visit the web site of Marilyn Stowe "Grahame Stowe & Bateson "