Divorced fathers will not get legal right to access
The Family Justice Review dashes hopes of groups such as Fathers 4 Justice
Owen Bowcott, legal affairs correspondent
The Guardian, Wednesday 2 November 2011
Fathers 4 Justice have staged high-profile protests demanding paternal rights after divorce or separation. Photograph: Michael Stephens/Empics
Fathers who have gone through divorce or separation will not be granted a legal right to guarantee that their child has “a meaningful relationship with both parents”, according to a long-awaited report on family law.
The Family Justice Review draws back from one of its key interim recommendations that had raised the hopes of groups such as Fathers 4 Justice, which campaigns for improved paternal access rights.
The review also condemns the lengthy court delays involved in care cases and calls for a statutory, six-month limit to be imposed on reaching decisions in child protection cases “save in exceptional circumstances”.
“The average care case in county courts now takes over 60 weeks and many take much longer – an age in the life of a child,” the report states. “These delays contribute to the two years seven months it takes on average for a child to be adopted. With 20,000 children now waiting for a decision, delay is likely to rise further.”
David Norgrove, the civil servant and businessman who chaired the review, said: “We need to eliminate the shocking delays in the system. Every year 500,000 children and adults are involved in the family justice system. They turn to it at times of great stress and conflict.
“It must deliver the best possible outcome for all the children and families who use it, because its decisions directly affect the lives and futures of all those involved, and have repercussions for society as a whole.”
Other recommendations in the 228-page report include:
• The creation of a family justice service to make sure agencies and professionals work together.
• More specialist judges to hear cases from start to finish to ensure consistency in the system.
• Less reliance on unnecessary expert witnesses and reports.
• Increased mediation to prevent cases going to court unnecessarily.
But it is the review’s decision on whether there should be a legal right for the child to continue having a “meaningful relationship with both parents” that appears to have been most problematic.
In its introduction, it states: “We are aware that some will be disappointed by our decision to recommend against a legal presumption around shared parenting and to step back even from the recommendations we made in this respect in our interim report.
“The evidence we received showed the acute distress experienced by parents who are unable to see their children after separation. This is an issue we know countries around the world try to tackle, and fail.
“Our conclusion was reached reluctantly but clearly. The law cannot state a presumption of any kind without incurring unacceptable risk of damage to children.”
Many fathers and grandfathers who had submitted evidence to review had supported it as an “important step”, the report notes, “reflecting how society has changed and give hope to the thousands of fathers who wish to have an active and appropriate engagement in their child’s upbringing”.
But countries such as Australia, where a similar right was established in 2006, the report explained, had seen an increase in litigation, creating even more legal confrontations. “As a result we withdraw the recommendation that a statement of ‘meaningful relationship’ be inserted in the legislation.”
Jane Robey of National Family Mediation said: “We welcome the enhanced role for mediators. Our mediators receive the best training in the country and are experts in their field. We believe mediation provides the best outcomes for families and children and gives people the chance to make their own decisions about their future if they choose to mediate. ”
Lottie Tyler, a family law specialist with the solicitors Weightmans, said: “It comes back to the overriding principle that children’s welfare has to be put first.”