Estranged fathers to get more access to children

By Jonathan Thompson

18 July 2004

Estranged fathers will be allowed increased access to their children under new legislation to be announced this week.

A Green Paper will propose changes to the family court system that will include the suggestion that both parents are allowed "frequent and continuous contact" with their children.

The proposed legislation is expected to include "parenting plans", however it will not include compulsory mediation for divorced couples over care of children, an omission that will anger campaigners.

"We recognise that there are a number of real difficulties with the current system," said a spokeswoman at the Department for Constitutional Affairs. "[There are] too many cases where the child's interests are not seen to be central, too many cases that go on for too long, too many cases where there are problems enforcing court decisions. The Government is looking at ways to help in cases of relationship breakdown."

But Matt O'Connor, founder of the militant rights group Fathers 4 Justice , said the proposals did not go far enough. "From what we can gather, this is effectively a McDad's charter - only allowing dads to meet their kids in McDonald's at weekends. It seems to be supporting a 70/30 custody split. There is no talk of mandatory mediation. This is basically a junk-food diet for families," he said.

The charity Fathers Direct welcomed the proposed reforms. Duncan Fisher, the charity's director, said: "We have a good law that requires the courts to act in the best interests of the child. Unfortunately the family courts frequently fail to enact this law because settlements often do not allow a child to enjoy plentiful time with both parents. Changing procedures within the family courts would be much simpler than changing the law and is most urgent."

Last week Michael Howard, the Tory leader, called for couples who split up to get equal custody of their children. Speaking at the Conservative Party's first family conference, Mr Howard said a change in the law was vital to ensure parents did not lose touch with their children after a divorce.

The issue has risen up the political agenda as divorce rates have risen. In May, two activists fromFathers 4 Justice were arrested after Tony Blair was hit by purple flour thrown in the Commons. The group last Sunday interrupted a York Minster service to protest at the Church's "failure" to lobby the Government over parental access.

Last night, Mr O'Connor vowed the group would continue its "campaign of civil disobedience". He said of the Green Paper: "It's a family law fudge ... it's going to be bad for the health of your family."