Divorced fathers to get better child access rights
David Leppard and Robert Winnett
July 11, 2004
MOTHERS who fail to grant their former husbands access to the
children face new penalties under a legal shake-up to improve
After a series of high-profile protests by fathers' groups,
including the "purple powder" attack on Tony Blair in the House of
Commons, a leaked cabinet document has revealed that ministers plan to give courts more power to force mothers to grant access.
Judges will be able to require mothers to carry out community
service if they fail to comply with court orders granting
fathers "contact" rights with their children.
At present, judges are only allowed to impose fines or prison
sentences, which are rarely used because of concerns that they would deprive the children of their mother and financially penalise the family.
The new laws will be seen as a significant concession to the demands of Fathers 4 Justice, whose members were behind the attack on Blair that led to the evacuation of the Commons in May.
It is also likely to be welcomed by well-known divorced fathers,
including Bob Geldof and the Prince of Wales, who have criticised
the family courts for being weighted against fathers.
The document, however, acknowledges that there will be
criticism "from some quarters" who will see it as tilting the
balance too far away from mothers and bowing to militant fathers'
Ministers at a cabinet sub-committee meeting on "parental
relationship breakdown" agreed last week to introduce a green paper outlining the changes to current law. According to the leaked paper, ministers want to improve the working of the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass), which handles family breakdown.
The paper states: "In order to improve compliance there would be
better monitoring of court orders, with the support of Cafcass. A
greater range of enforcement mechanisms would be developed to
provide the judiciary with options that were less severe than
imposing fines or prison sentences."
As well as community service, these will include parenting orders
that allow a court to stipulate the conditions a mother would have
to follow, such as taking a child to the father's home. Breaches of
the order would leave the mother open to prosecution and a criminal record.
Matt O'Connor, the founder of Fathers 4 Justice, described the
government's plan as a "significant step" in the right direction.
However, he said the green paper did not appear to go far enough in forcing mothers to enter into compulsory mediation.
About 160,000 children a year are affected by divorce. Some studies have found that up to 40% of fathers lose all contact with their children after two years.
Ninety per cent of childcare arrangements are settled by separating
couples without court intervention. However, the number of court
contact orders has risen 50% to 61,000 since 2002.