It appears there is still significant confusion around exactly what will be in the Children and Families Bill in relation to shared parenting. I have blogged several times on this issue in the last year. It has been a kind of “will they, won’t they” situation on a number of points in terms of what will be covered in new legislation.
The most high profile issue has undoubtedly been around children’s rights to have a relationship with both parents, eg it is presumed both parents will share responsibility rather than it being down to the mother to make the running and the father to chase in terms of actually spending time with their children.
It has been genuinely difficult to keep up and I admit I lost track of where we were with it. Initially, it was a definite yes to “better rights for fathers”, then the draft of the Family Justice Review left it out saying it would be too difficult to prescribe the amount of time a child should spend with each parent. In the Bill announced in the recent Queen’s speech to Parliament, it was back in.
Now Children’s Minster Tim Loughton has written to The Times to “clarify” the issue of “the right of artificial equality of time” with regards to shared parenting. And, I think this has actually brought a measure of clarity, though some of the language used is far from plain English. You can read it in full here but, just by way of a taster, selected lines include:
“Our proposals for shared parenting categorically do not create any right of artificial equality of time with children post-divorce.
“The state cannot create happy families so where disputes end up in court, the law must be clearer that children should have an ongoing relationship with both parents after separation wherever possible. Current legislation is not explicit on this point which means that intractable arguments end up in court, with too many children used as pawns in a 'winner takes all' game – creating a perception that the courts are biased against one or other parent, usually the father.
“Our proposals will send a clear message that both parents' have a joint responsibility to bring up their children, unless there is a clear welfare reason not to. We are toughening up enforcement of any breaches of court orders, with clear consequences for trying to 'play the system' to freeze the non-resident parent out of their children's lives. This will mean more parents will resolve their disputes out of court, instead of getting dragged into protracted litigation, where the only losers are their own sons and daughters.”
I think fathers will be happy that the Minister has waded in to clarify (once and for all?) where the legislation is pitched. It will encourage estranged couples to reach agreement outside of court but it will be tougher on those who breach court orders relating to contact. This has been one of the major criticisms of the current system. Orders and arrangements can be made but if an ex-spouse, often the mother, refuses to comply with it, the father is likely to have to privately fund any pursuit of the issue through the courts – and there is no guarantee at the end of it that there will be any real penalty if someone does not comply.
I guess it is still a case of watch this space but the letter has given me certainly a bit more clarity on where the legislation will be pitched and I hope bring comfort to fathers across the country being frozen out of their children’s lives.