Monday, 15 September 2014

Face to Face Support - FNF Central London

The primary goal of The Custody Minefield is to provide family law information for those without legal representation, lay advisers and charity sector staff (some in the legal profession and other professionals find it quite handy too).

Other organisations provide 1-to-1 support, and one of these is the charity Families Need Fathers (FNF). FNF, despite its name, helps both mums and dads, and in addition to a helpline and internet based forums, has local branches across the country where you can meet with other parents going through separation and find face-to-face support. A vital lifeline for many litigants-in-person.

Much of this work is done by volunteers, who receive no plaudits, little public recognition, but who work to help others, year in, year out.

One such is Vincent McGovern, Chair of Families Need Fathers' largest and oldest branch, who we've invited to explain what his branch does, his personal role and work, and that of the Central London Committee.

FNF's Central London Branch have their own web page, with details of Branch Meetings.

Visit: Families Need Fathers - Central London Branch

We're happy to publicise details of organisations which support parents ...and after this brief introduction, I'll leave you in Vincent's hands...

Branch Meetings
The Central London Branch of Families Need Fathers is the founding branch of FNF established in 1974. It is also the busiest and largest with between 900-1,000+ attendees each year. 

We have meetings to offer separating and separated parents support, every Monday at 8 pm apart from Bank Holidays and Christmas. Meetings are held in a private function room at the Crosse Keys Pub, 9 Gracechurch Street, and near Bank underground station.

Newcomers are not obliged to speak and are welcome to observe – we like to provide a relaxed, pressure free forum for discussion.

Our Attendees
People often ask me what type of person attends our meetings. My reply always is “normal people unfortunate enough to find themselves in unfortunate circumstances.”

The majority of our attendees are dads, but we are gender blind and help any mother who is the non-resident parent. Quite often younger dads have their mothers or sisters accompanying them. Our whole raison d’etre is to support the children having a proper involvement with both parents, post divorce or separation, unless there is proven danger.

The Crosse Keys Meeting Venue
Legal Support at our Meetings
We have a specialist Solicitor clinic on the first Monday of every month for members only from 6-8 pm. We owe a deep appreciation to the family law firm Anthony Gold and Co, who have provided this important pro bono service for decades. Quite often we have the benefit of a senior partner from that firm which is very helpful for nervous frightened attendees.

For the past year at most meetings we have also benefitted from the assistance of Austin Chessell, a family law solicitor and mediator, also a Trustee of FNF, which enables whoever is Chairing the meeting that night, giving advice, to have a professional referee for validity of comment.

As well as solicitor support, McKenzie Friends (lay legal advisers) are on hand to provide support and assistance.

We wish to make clear that no adviser (solicitor or otherwise) charges for their time at our meetings, and again sincerely thank all, who over many years have given up their time to help thousands of parents and their children.

All of our meetings are held under Chatham House rules, no repetition of discussions outside of the meeting, no recording, first names only and NEVER ever reveal the names and addresses of parties to anyone. This basic housekeeping causes some problems for newcomers who are quite often emotional (understandably) but it is an absolute requirement for us as a branch and helps the attendee to focus as sometimes they are in deep shock. Confidentiality is important not just to these parents, but their children as well.

Work of the Central London Branch (CLB) Committee
We hold committee meetings every three months dealing with such matters as housekeeping, rota for chairing meetings, liaising between ourselves and FNF HQ, also other branches, financial management etc. The committee of CLB never charges expenses for attending all these meetings, a considerable burden in itself. However, this means CLB has the funds for limited campaigning, assisting some truly desperate members with court fees, train fare to and from meetings, etc and on occasions helping the national charity at AGM’s etc. 

We normally have the full contingent of seven committee members at each branch meeting, as meeting every week requires considerable time input from officers.

Committee members are elected, each year, at the Branch AGM. We're a democratic group!

About Me
I first joined FNF/CLB in December 2007. Ironically I delayed joining as I discovered they met above a pub and I incorrectly assumed they were just a bunch of angry dads drinking and "sounding off". That false impression was quickly dispelled at my first meeting. A few months later I was invited onto CLB committee.

My views on post-separation and our legal and welfare system
It remains a perversity that, especially when parents are likely to be in heightened emotional state following a relationship break up, the court too often encourages post-separation dispute by handing control and a means of punishment to one over the other.

As Sir Nicholas Mostyn, a judge in the High Court, said in a past judgment, "if parents were behaving well, they'd probably still be together" but ours is an adversarial legal system. My own view is that the term adversial should have no place in the family courts. Our family courts should be inquisitorial and facilitative.

I can say, with clarity, that too often our family law system does fail children and still contains elements of gender bias. I've seen house husbands relegated to alternate weekend contact parents after separation, with little thought to maintaining the status quo for the children. Why... because of their gender and some judges remaining out of touch with the contemporary household. In so many homes across the country, both parents take an active role in their children's lives. In the new millennium, research finds mums and dads equally involved (Equalities Commission Research, 2008), yet after court, too often arrangements are imposed which hark back to a 1970s ethos. Countless studies confirm child welfare benefits when both parents are fully involved in their children's lives.

I've seen too many instances where there has been malpractice in welfare services, and four Ombudsman Investigations (with findings against) in a single case I've had involvement with. Findings confirmed institutional malpractice within children’s and legal services. Two of these were Parliamentary and Health Services Ombudsman investigations with findings against Brent Primary Care Trust and Cafcass. Sadly, findings such as these, while a moral victory, result in zero change on the ground. We need an ethos within UK Children's Services where the primary motivation is raising standards rather than defending reputations.

Too often, our courts fail to safeguard a child's relationships, or protect them from the emotional harm caused by an alienating parent. There is too little enforcement of Court Orders (Ref Hansard 25 February 2013, column 113).

So much opportunity for a more family friendly legal system was lost with the final revisions to the Children Act in 2014. UK MPs were too influenced by powerful lobby groups, and misinformed. An example being their holding that a presumption of shared parenting was unsuccessful in Australia, when no such finding existed. Such was the opinion of Professor Parkinson of the Sydney Law School, whose criticism included that the UK Family Justice Review misrepresented the findings of Australian research. At our branch, we deal with the fall out of political failure.

The expression ‘Welfare of the Child’ has become an expression of convenience quite often unrelated to children’s welfare or needs but most beneficial, ideologically and financially, to the myriad virtually unregulated and effectively unaccountable services involved. Big business meets a nigh on unaccountable public sector lacking in checks and balances. As an MEP said to me in Brussels, “when income generation is more important than welfare of children then we have systemic failing.”

This is the reason why I moved my energies to lobbying in the European Parliament. The difference with Westminster could not have been more stark. The MEP’s have extensive knowledge of the shortcomings within UK Family Courts and associated services. Fortunately Ombudsman Investigations mean something in Brussels, and the fact I could submit details of four (mentioned above) leant weight to my submissions. On March 19th this year I had the privilege of briefly addressing the petitions Commission of the European Parliament on it’s motion ‘Systemic Failings within UK Family Courts and Children’s Services.’ The title was apt. I am deeply grateful to FNF's Central London Branch for always supporting my work attempting to bring about the much needed improvements in these services.

Our branch and other FNF branches help parents navigate the courts as they stand today. My hope remains for a better system in the future.