I read in today’s Telegraph about the Government’s plan to introduce legislation and force courts to give equal rights of contact (formerly access) to both parents. I as surprised as the Government-commissioned report by David Norgrove last year counselled against this proposal which has been pushed hard by pro-father pressure groups. Norgrove stated that this law in Australia has damaged children.
Lawyers will be concerned that such a move will mean children are forced to see the non-resident parent (usually the father), on terms that judges will have little option but to impose. The father’s criticism of the courts is that they are biased towards mothers. Ministers assert that judges adopt too formulaic an approach towards contact, every other weekend being the norm. The judiciary themselves will argue to retain their discretion to decide how much contact there should be, taking into account the child’s best interests, instead of the wishes of a parent. The Children Act 1989 does already state that it is the right of a child to have a relationship with both parents.
Father’s groups have of course welcomed the news, but with well-advised caution as to whether it will actually ever come to fruition. Is this yet another idea introduced to great fanfare which will be quietly dropped later?
In fact, I am finding that shared parenting is becoming the norm. This does not mean the child’s week is split evenly between their parents, but that there is more than just fortnightly visits, leading to five or six nights with their father in every two week period. I tell my clients looking for shared parenting that they need to involve themselves in their children’s lives before separation, meeting the mother’s plea for assistance with bath time, for example. There is no doubt that there are some mothers who do everything to exclude fathers from their children’s lives on divorce, and the courts already have powers to deal with them, including prison, powers which are seldom used. If the government is serious about reform, the court’s powers of enforcement need to be strengthened to ensure they are properly administered. My point is that all this legislation exists on the statute book and perhaps more guidance for judges is needed as to use of those enforcement powers.