Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Gender Wars? Nonsense - Family Law Reform and Opposition

The Government is proposing changes to family law to ensure that children benefit from a continued, meaningful relationship with both parents following separation.

Already we're seeing commentators attempting to draw battle lines between "mothers' groups and fathers' groups" as if only men support the changes, and women will naturally be opposed. It's a fallacy.

I know most of the groups that have been campaigning for shared care. Despite historic names, their memberships are made up from grandparents, mothers, step-parents of both sexes, and yes... fathers. The largest UK fathers' charity has had a woman as its chair for the last couple of years. Their offices are and have been staffed by men and women, and the women are no less passionate or dedicated to the campaign work and the reasons behind it.

Research is conclusive that children are disadvantaged when deprived of a father figure, and sadly, our family justice system has failed to safeguard children's welfare, and reflect parenting in the modern age. It is because of this failure that change is needed. We also know that society as a whole suffers from polarised as opposed to shared parenting. Teenage depression, delinquency, pregnancy, drug abuse are all linked to the reduction in the role or removal of the father.[1] Is this because men are more important parents than mothers? No, but the role and importance of fathers and the consequencial impact of loss has grown considerably. It's a matter of common sense (although one supported by research) that when you deprive a child of a significant attachment figure, the child suffers harm.

Since 1970s, the level of father involvement in intact families has increased nine fold. The level of father involvement in childcare averages just 15 minutes less per day... 15 minutes [2], yet when a couple separates, the children's relationship is often reduced to alternate weekends, and only this year, official figures confirmed 20% of children of divorce see that relationship severed completely.

Who led the concern about the number of children losing contact with a father? Maria Miller MP.

In 2009 I started a campaign to reform relocation related family law. While it was invariably mothers relocating with children (as 90% of children have mothers as primary carers), our arguments were based solely on child welfare rather than the rights of one or other of the genders. Two of the most vocal supporters for reform were from the UK's leading international family law firms... and were women. The MP who chaired the talks at Westminster was a women. At those talks, the representatives of the charity Reunite and the Centre for Social Justice were... women. To imply it is only men in super hero costumes who have been arguing for legal reform is a fallacy.

Bob Geldof wrote the foreword for our Parliamentary Briefing Report, and the press seized on his words 'The court is entirely informed by outdated social engineering models and contemporary attitudes rather than fact, precedent rather than common sense and modish unproven nostrums rather than present day realities. It is a disgraceful mess. A farrago of cod professionalism and faux concern largely predicated on nonsensical social guff, mumbo-jumbo and psycho-babble. Dangling at the other end of this are the lives of thousands of British children and their families.' [3]

His condemnation made the front page of the Mail and Telegraph, but the views of the Managing Partner of The International Family Law Group were no less damning:

'How can we, in the English legal profession, have gone so wrong, have failed so many children, have inadvertently engaged in gender discrimination almost 2 generations, have fallen so out of step with many other countries and, most of all, failed to acknowledge trends in parenting patterns, especially in international families, over the past 40 years?'

The people in favour of family law reform and shared parenting care about child welfare. Those opposed, care about control, the protection of an industry which mainly serves itself, or are informed by personal experiences which are largely historic and bear little relation to modern family life.

Those opposed quote a small number of Australian studies, but if you read the detail of those studies, you'll find most are not opposed, and all admit to having relatively small and therefore unreliable sample sizes. Do these opponents point at the many other countries that now favour shared parenting... no. I've seen it written that a presumption of shared care has lengthened court proceedings in Australia, but those articles and blogs fail to mention that Australia's 'Less Adversarial Trial Scheme' which was intended to reduce the adversarial nature of proceedings was insufficiently resourced.

Those opposed state that each case must be judged on its own merits, but fail to point out that our system of family law makes outcomes a lottery based on the individual opinions, abilities and in some cases prejudices of the individual judge who hears the case. The 'wide ambit of judicial discretion' ensures inconsistency. I've seen cases, many cases with nigh on identical circumstances having entirely different outcomes. There has to be guidance, and detailed guidance, and the rights of the judiciary to independence should not trump the rights of children and families to consistent justice.

Reform of Family Law isn't about mothers or fathers winning or losing, but updating the law to reflect parenting in the current millenium, to give the best opportunities to children, and the greatest benefit to society as a whole.

It's time to have a sensible debate and outcome, and not one based on a battle of the sexes, protecting an industy, or a rigid adherence to out-of-date traditions. It's time everyone grew up, and put the welfare of children first.

1. Shared Care Research - The Custody Minefield.
2. Equalities Commission 2008
3. 'Moving country but losing the child: Reform and Resolution of Child Relocation Law and Practice' - Ann Thomas, managing partner of the International Family Law Group.
4. Family Law: Relocation - The Case for Reform - The Custody Minefield