It has taken family law a long time to ensure that children are put at the heart of any contact and residence issues. What is best for them is the starting point and I firmly believe that is how it should be.
Most of the time, this will involve them having contact with both parents, with both sides of the equation having a tangible impact on their offspring’s upbringing. And in most instances, this will be agreed between the parents, enshrined by the court and off everyone will go. However, there are still far too many instances when one party, usually the mother, then does not stick to the contact agreement and it is an uphill battle for the father to get anything done to force her to comply. Apart from anything else, it has seen the father, traditionally at least the major breadwinner, having to fund their own, often lengthy, court battle to see their own children.
Now it seems though that there is some hope on the horizon for dads as news comes that the Government is (again) drawing up plans to give both mums and dads a legal right to see their children. The aim is to give the law a little more bite in dealing with individual parents who do not then comply with court orders relating to contact.
The Daily Telegraph reported that courts will be put under a legal duty to ensure divorce settlements include contact from both sides, with a focus on shared parenting. Parents who refuse to accept the orders will be in contempt of court and so face jail.
I feel this is the right course of action. Look at the campaigns like Fathers 4 Justice, with many genuinely caring partners who simply want to be involved in their children’s life but are blocked by obstructive ex-wives and have to fight lengthy and costly legal battles to make any progress at all. That is not right, and courts should be able to make swifter decisions on this type of case, as well as ensuring appropriate penalties are in place for those who do not adhere to court instructions as a deterrent.
I have to say that at the moment I know little more about the plans than what I have read in the papers. When the Family Justice Review came out in November, it suggested that it would not make contact for both parties the norm, saying it would put too much pressure on judges to be prescriptive about how much time a child should spend with each parent. However, this new revelation suggests the Government, in its response to the FJR, is resurrecting the idea. Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, and Iain Duncan Smith, the Welfare Secretary, are understood to support the plans. The Conservatives also pledged to introduce the reforms while in opposition. How they will get around the issue highlighted by the FJR, I do not know.
I am a proud father and I feel that presumed shared contact is the right thing. I shall be looking out with interest for the Government’s response to the FJR which I understand will be published in the next month or so.