20th May 2004


By Marilyn Stowe

A lawyer changing their mind may seem, to some, as likely as money growing on trees. But I recently came into contact with a group of people who have opened my eyes about a growing problem in society - is the law acting unfairly towards fathers and access to their children after divorce?

Until recently, all I knew about organizations which represented such fathers came from media coverage of the protest antics of men dressed as Spiderman and Batman hanging from bridges and disrupting traffic as part of their campaign.

At first I thought they were just extremists. I even said so in The Times. My comments generated a tidal wave of responses from men who were clearly very angry at the treatment they had received from the courts over access to their children after a divorce.

I began an email diaIogue with many of these individuals, both here in the UK and abroad. What I learned has caused me to alter my views

I now believe that many fathers do not receive fair treatment in law in this country when it comes to the question of children. What became abundantly clear as I heard their stories was that here were men who had practiced what successive governments had preached, taking an active, sharing role in the upbringing of their children and who suddenly found themselves expunged from the daily lives of their off-spring.

It is now being recognized as a major problem within society.

There are around 160,000 children a year affected by divorce and some surveys report that up to 40% of fathers lose all contact with their children after two years.

Some 90% of child arrangements are settled by separating couples without court intervention. Despite this the number of contact orders made by the courts has increased 50% in five years to a total of 61,000 in 2002. However, enforcing contact orders is often not practicable since imprisonment and fines on the offending parent often impact on the welfare of the children at the heart of the dispute. It is the law itself, not prison, that should provide the answer.

Society has changed much over recent decades. Men and women now share responsibilities in a relationship; care of the children, household chores and even earning the money.

So why on family breakdown should routinely women be able to dictate where the children live and how much time they spend with their father? In many cases, women assume the children will reside with them and that fathers will be reduced to having them for fortnightly weekends and visiting once a week. That is often seen as generous.

Some mothers flatly refuse contact at all or place restrictions that are unsupportable. Yet fathers will still have to pay the full financial consideration of child support.

The time is right to consider an alternative approach. Putting the children first should now mean a presumption of equal parenting in practice as well as theory. In the USA certain states have already started to grapple with the problem.

This will eliminate the question of how long a father should see his children and instead focus on the logistics of both parents doing so through a joint parenting plan and sharing the time spent with children equally. If one parent wants to change this they have to convince a court of the merit of their case. In some cases, not every parent will want equal time.

It is an emotional subject and change is needed. Until it comes, those caught up in family breakdown need the advice of lawyers able to help them steer an amicable course through this complex area of law.

Marilyn Stowe is Head of Family Law Grahame Stowe Bateson.