Parents to face fines for refusing access

By Maxine Frith, Social Affairs Correspondent

22 July 2004

Parents who refuse their former partners access to their children after separation or divorce could be ordered to pay compensation or sentenced to community service under government proposals published yesterday.

The reform of child custody rules is designed to give fathers more rights and end bitter court disputes between estranged couples. Ministers want the system to move from lengthy and adversarial court cases to procedures based on mediation and conciliation.

Under the Green Paper proposals published yesterday, separating couples will be encouraged to draw up "parenting plans" to come to an amicable arrangement about contact. The rules on legal aid will be changed to promote earlier, more consensual resolution of custody cases, and couples will have to show they have tried some form of mediation before they can resort to the courts.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton, the Constitutional Affairs Secretary, said: "The Government strongly believes that children need both parents. These proposals will make it more likely that children will continue to have two parents."

But radical fathers' groups have been angered by the Government's rejection of their demands for an automatic 50-50 split in custody rights when couples separate. They vowed to continue with their direct-action stunts and said the reforms did not go far enough.

Matt O'Connor, founder of Fathers 4 Justice, said: "We are profoundly disappointed with the proposals as they just recycle existing legislation and do not give fathers any kind of equality. This will just inflame the issue for our members - it is like pouring a tank of petrol on a burning house."

Mr O'Connor said his group was planning to stage a major protest in the next few weeks over the Green Paper proposals.

Lord Falconer rejected the idea of an exact split in contact arrangements as unworkable and not in the best interests of children. He said: "There cannot and will not be an automatic presumption of 50/50 contact. Child-ren cannot be divided like the furniture or the CD collection. It is more complex than that."

Of the 200,000 couples with children who separate and divorce each year, the vast majority of access arrangements are agreed amicably.

But about 10 per cent end up in court, with some cases stretching on for years and hundreds of hearings and increasingly acrimonious disputes between parents. The average custody court case takes 36 weeks to complete.

Fathers 4 Justice claims that 100 children a day lose contact with their fathers because of the court system or the refusal of mothers to comply with custody arrangements.

At the moment, the courts can impose fines and jail sentences on parents who refuse to comply with contact orders, but these sanctions are rarely used.

Under the new proposals, parents could be forced to attend counselling or parenting programmes or be sentenced to community service if they flout the courts' orders.

A parent could also be ordered to pay their former partner compensation if, for instance, a holiday has been booked by the father and the mother refuses to allow the children to go at the last minute.

More moderate campaign groups welcomed the Green Paper proposals.

Duncan Fisher, director of the group Fathers Direct which has condemned the actions of more radical campaigns, said: "This is a historic moment, marking a shift to a legal system that can deliver co-parenting after separation and protect children from harm.

"The principle that the best parent is both parents lies at the heart of the proposals.

"This represents a huge step for many parents who have had to fight for years for a level of contact that this Green Paper acknowledges as the norm."

The issue of fathers' rights has become increasingly high profile over the past 18 months, mainly due to the radical Fathers 4 Justice movement.

Its members complain the courts are biased in favour of women and that even when fathers are granted access, their former partners have refused to comply with legal orders.

Fathers 4 Justice now claims to have more than 10,000 members, and recent direct action tactics have included hurling flour bombs in the House of Commons, dressing as action heroes and protesting from road bridges, and ambushing solicitors who act for women in custody cases.

Patricia Hewitt, Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, said: "I very much regret that some people have tried to turn this into a guerrilla battle between fathers' rights and women's rights. This is about parent's responsibilities and the child's best interests."

Bob Geldof, who has become a vocal campaigner for fathers' rights, criticised the Government's proposals and backed demands for 50-50 custody splits.

Writing in today's Independent, he said: "The Government's tinkering has failed to address the fundamental injustice at the heart of the present system.

"The document ... does not grasp the nettle of giving parents equal access to their children and it continues to treat fathers differently to mothers."

'The system is biased against men'

Tony Lewis won residency rights over his two sons after he and his wife divorced, but endured a bruising battle with the court system.

"I was the primary carer when I was with my wife and I was staying in the marital home, which I thought was important for the children," he said. But the family court could not understand that neither women nor men make better parents - we just do things differently. Fathering today is a hands-on issue and a 70-year-old judge often has no notion of that."

Mr Lewis, 42, was married for 10 years. His sons James, nine, and Anthony, eight, now live with him, and see their mother regularly.

"The whole system is biased against men," he said. "Couples are almost told to throw allegations at each other in a divorce case. Fathers should have equal rights to their children - that is all we want."