Must you give up everything to fight for custody?

Jul 27 2004


The fate of fathers embroiled in acrimonious custody battles has become increasingly high profile in recent months.

The Birmingham Post's Sophie Blakemore spoke to one man about his personal war with the courts...

Charles - a pseudonym - was like any other successful businessman juggling a career and family life.

A chartered accountant, he had risen through the ranks to become a managing director in an international high-tech firm.

But in 2000 his life was turned upside down when his wife left him for one of his former work colleagues and took their son, who was just under a year old, with her.

Charles’ existence was about to change beyond anything he could have predicted as he found out what it was like to become one of thousands of fathers in the UK battling for joint custody of their children.

For a year, he paid lawyers thousands of pounds to represent him in family court hearings and appeals. But realising the only way to really put up a fight was to throw himself whole-heartedly into the fray, he handed in his notice and spent every waking hour and any spare cash representing himself.

There followed more than two dozen court appearances, several of them before the Royal Courts of Justice and at the High Court in London.

Although not a member of the campaign group Fathers 4 Justice, which has gained notoriety for a growing number of high-profile publicity stunts since last year, Charles has huge respect for it.

“I have been known to Fathers 4 Justice for three years because of my situation and I totally respect them,” he said.

“I have total sympathy for them and their children who do not see them, but as a father if you give your life up to fighting for them you end up destroying your own.

“In my last court appearance two weeks ago the judge told me I was living in the past and now I realise what he was saying.”

After four years of constant graft and agony, Charles decided to give up the fight for his parental rights but then changed his mind after receiving a late night phone call from his son.

“I’m going to appeal, I have to, having heard his voice,” he added.

“With contact and parental access, I think that at the beginning for the parents’ and the child’s sake you have to start on a 50-50 basis.

“Then from that, the judges move from 50-50 but they should clearly identify why they make their decisions or change the orders. The worse thing for a father is not knowing.”

Should a father be forced to grudgingly turn his back on some of the most formative and exciting years of his son’s life just because a court declares there is nothing much it can do for him?

Last week the Government published a Green Paper on parental rights and family law and vowed to modernise its policies.

Earlier this month, Tory leader Michael Howard called for a change in the law to ensure both parents received equal access after a split.

He said it was vital parents did not lose touch with their children after a divorce and has asked shadow Secretary of State for the Family Theresa May to carry out a review of the Children Act. He also admitted that “all too often” it was the father who lost contact with the children.

But Ray Barry, regional co-ordinator of Fathers 4 Justice for the Midlands, does not hold out much hope that anything will be done to rectify the bias towards the mother in a hurry.

“The Green Paper is the Government trying to present a picture that there is not a lot seriously wrong with family law,” he said.

The group argues that residence is awarded to the mother in 95 per cent of cases. It claims that instead of the Family Court believing the best interest of a child is to have equally shared parenting, there exists a ‘winner takes all’ approach where one parent more often than not gets total control.

“Fathers are forced to fight for the right just to see their children and Charles’ is just another case of a very successful man who has lost every-thing,” added Mr Barry.

Charles - who is due to appear alongside Sir Bob Geldof in a Channel 4 programme about child custody later this year - has also pledged to write to the Prime Minister Tony Blair, Children’s Minister Margaret Hodge and the Royal Courts of Justice every day asking them to find out where his son is.