Equal custody for 'weekend dads'
Labour moves to tackle gender bias in courts as both parties suffer at
ballot box from 'militant man'
Gaby Hinsliff, chief political correspondent
Sunday July 11, 2004
Divorced fathers could split the custody of their children equally with
their ex-partners under radical plans being pushed by senior ministers to
tackle the growing anger of 'weekend dads' who feel excluded from their
children's lives. With fathers increasingly expected to take a hands-on role in raising their children, senior figures are arguing it is unrealistic to expect them to walk away if their marriage breaks down.
One senior government source said fathers had a 'very strong and I think
very justified sense of grievance' about the family courts.
'Except in a minority of cases of abuse and violence, it is in the
children's interests to have a lot of contact and involvement with their
parents,' said the source.
'I think where we ought to be going is much more towards the Australian
model or [that of] some American states where the norm is shared care.'
Shared parenting is routine in Australia, New Zealand and parts of America, with both parents having custody either for roughly equal amounts of time or - depending on working hours - at least greater access than many British fathers, who are reduced to a few hours every other weekend.
The government has to tackle 'an absolute gender bias' in the courts which says a child's place is with its mother, the senior minister added.
The issue is fast becoming a political hot potato, with Tory leader Michael Howard due tomorrow to stage a summit showcasing the problems of parents caught up in custody battles. The party is also looking at 'shared parenting', plus draconian punishments for mothers who defy court arrangements for contact.
Meanwhile Bob Geldof, the rock star who has long campaigned for equal custody rights, is interviewing politicians for a Channel Four documentary on the issue.
The sensitive debate over child custody has split the government, delaying a blueprint for reform of child custody legislation, meant to have been published last month by the Department for Constitutional Affairs (DCA).
Officials there are reluctant to be seen to give in to the militant men's
movement, whose activists threw purple flour bombs at the Prime Minister in the Commons in May to highlight their cause.
However, the power of the 'militant man' vote at the ballot box has not gone unnoticed by either party.
'We are sympathetic to the view that there are a number of parents - not
just dads, but non-resident parents of both sexes - who are excluded from contact with their children, and that the current system is not able to deal with their problems,' said Dominic Grieve, shadow spokesman on
constitutional affairs, who is co-ordinating the summit, together with
family affairs spokesman Tim Loughton. Grieve said he was sympathetic to calls for so-called shared parenting. The summit will also discuss how to compel mothers to obey court orders for access.
'In the US, if the parent doesn't co-operate with the agreed plans, they
will just lose the child - the child will be removed from that parent's
care,' said Grieve. 'It seems to work.'
Katharine Rake, director of pressure group the Fawcett Society, warned, however, there was little firm evidence that courts were biased agianst men and that it would be unfair to insist on shared custody in marriages where childcare had never been shared before.
'The reality of lots of contact disputes is not aggrieved fathers being
deprived of access to their children, it's women bending over backwards to facilitate access and having to comfort upset children when their dads fail to turn up.'
The Tories appear to have backed away from an early flirtation with Fathers for Justice, the militant group whose activists threw flour bombs at the Prime Minister.
Although Shadow Cabinet Minister Tim Yeo wrote to Matt O'Connor, leader of the group and a constituent of his, in April suggesting that 'I am confident we will be able to indicate our support for your campaign for changes in family law', the publicity over the subsequent attack is thought to have scared the Tories off.
Grieve told The Observer he would not deal with any organisation that had not disowned the flourbombers, and Fathers for Justice is not expected to get a platform at the summit.
However, Howard has expressed sympathy with the Equal Parenting Alliance, which argues custody should be split equally wherever possible, for instance with the non-resident parent able to spend up to 100 days and nights with the child. He will say tomorrow that 'the best parent is both parents', even after divorce.
The Government is drawing up a green paper on child contact arrangements expected to be published later in the summer.
DCA sources say while the campaigns by moderate divorced fathers have 'moved the overall cause along', the the key legal principle for the courts is that they should first consider the point of view of the child's best interests, not those of warring adults.