Judges urge end to family court nightmare

17 October 2003

Proposals, backed by senior judges, that could cut the numbers of contested child contact cases in the family courts by 75 per cent, have been presented to the Government.

The plans have been presented to the Department for Constitutional Affairs on the eve of Parents’ Week (October 20-26) and before a week of threatened demonstrations in London by fathers’ rights groups. Last week Lord Filkin, Minister for Constitutional Affairs, said that he was seeking proposals to resolve access problems more quickly and less acrimoniously.

The proposals are backed by senior judges. They would not require a change in the law, would improve outcomes for children, free many distressed families from traumatic legal proceedings and increase fathers’ time with their children. The reforms would also create financial savings, notably a cut in the costs of Legal Aid to those contesting cases in the family courts.

Under the scheme, known as the "Early Interventions Pilot Project", parents asking the courts to settle disputes over child contact would be diverted first to meet experts who would explain what children need after separation. They would then be required to agree a parenting plan that recognised that children typically do best after separation when they see plenty of both parents. Couples would be told that partners failing to work with the process could lose out on parenting time.

The Inner London Family Proceedings Court, one of Britain’s busiest, has expressed a wish to pilot the programme, modelled on one running successfully in Florida for the past decade. Nicholas Crichton, district judge at the Inner London Family Proceedings Court, who deals with about 1,500 contact cases a year, estimates that about 75 per cent of such cases could avoid contested hearings under the new system. About 80,000 parents a year issue contact proceedings each year in the UK.

District Judge Crichton said:
"At Inner London, as elsewhere, we operate the principle of ‘frequent and continuous contact’. But it is done ex post facto. We do not have an opportunity to advise parents until there is a hearing. That can be too late. Some parents are so caught up in acrimony that they lose sight of the children’s need to see plenty of both parents."

Mrs Justice Bracewell, a senior family court judge, said:
"It would be incomprehensible if the pilot project did not receive official sanction. It would achieve savings in money and court time; it should produce much better outcomes for parents and children."

Oliver Cyriax, a solicitor with New Approaches to Contact, which designed the pilot project said:
"The changes are in line with the Government’s aim to encourage separated parents to share in the upbringing of their children. It is vital ministers keep close control of reforms that could spell the end of the family court as a heartbreak hotel."

Duncan Fisher, Director of Fathers Direct, the national information centre on fatherhood, said:
"The law is obviously not working at the moment as thousands of children are caught unnecessarily in court battles. The Government should order an inquiry into this national scandal. However, these proposals offer a simple way of making the law function as it is intended to do: in the interests of the child. International experience demonstrates that, once the new scheme works in London, it will be quickly adopted nationally because of the savings in time, money and grief to already distressed families. The changes recognise the real value of mums and dads to their children and would avoid acrimonious disputes between separating parents."

John Lenderman, the judge who led the Florida reforms, said:
"The ‘early interventions’ process really does work. It saves huge amounts of money and time – it has saved many families from emotional distress."

Research into the impact of contact battles on children

  • Children whose parents do battle through the courts over residence or contact suffer similar levels of distress to those experienced during care proceedings, according to "Families In Conflict" a study of 100 families published in 2002 by Dr Ann Buchanan of Oxford University’s Department of Social Policy and Social Work. 
  • Children typically do better after family break-up if they maintain contact with their non-resident fathers, according to research published in 2002 by Judy Dunn, Professor of Psychology at the Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College, London. The children are less likely to suffer from anxiety or depression or exhibit aggressive behaviour, found the study. 
  • In June, hundreds of children posted messages to their dads on the Fathers Direct website for Fathers’ Day. Many expressed their grief at not seeing their fathers for many years after the separation of their parents. Some of these messages can be read at www.fatherhoodinstitute.org

Note to Editors:

Fathers Direct is a charity founded in 1999 by professionals with expertise in social work, in social work, family policy, business development and communications. It exists to support the welfare of children by the positive and active involvement of fathers and male carers in their lives. The charity has trained hundreds of family service workers seeking to engage more with fathers. It recently launched Dad magazine, a men’s magazine for expectant and new dads that is delivered free of charge via ante-natal units.

Fathers Direct, Herald House, Lambs Passage, Bunhill Row, London EC1Y 8TQ 020 7920 9491 www.fatherhoodinstitute.org inquiries@fathersdirect.com

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