THE BLOG

Parental Rights and Wrongs in Divorce

18/03/2015 13:54 GMT | Updated 17/05/2015 10:12 BST

Anyone who's ever read tabloid gossip pages will know that child arrangements can cause great bitterness in the wake of divorce. In fact, it can be the single most sensitive aspect of the whole process.

Celebrities from Charlie Sheen to Woody Allen have found themselves wrapped up in public battles with their exes over who gets to 'keep' the children, and these battles are frequently played out in the bitchy, theatrical arena of the red-top newspaper. Simple, amicable child arrangements, such as those seen in the divorces of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes or Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin, seem bafflingly problem-free by comparison.

Away from the headlines in the (slightly) less sensationalist world of family law, dealing with these sorts of tensions is par for the course, naturally, but does it need to be this way?

It is a half-truth that mothers are universally favoured by judges in family cases. This used to be the case but has begun to change as women have taken a greater role in the workplace. There is more progress to be made, and fathers do still fall foul of judgments that make assumptions about gender roles when it comes to parenting.

No doubt it will become more usual for both parents to take on more equal roles in parenting in the future - particularly given the changes in parental leave at work that are set to come into force in the UK in the coming weeks - but still, this is a space that will need to be watched.

In family law, we are bound by the paramountcy principle, which dictates that parents and courts must place a child's best interests first. 'Tis a truth - a whole truth - that really should be universally acknowledged, that a continuing relationship with both parents is in the best interests of a child, unless, of course, there are egregious reasons to the contrary, such as abuse or violence. These cases are rare, and of course when they do occur they are to be taken seriously.

Nevertheless, every now and again, a client will come through our doors attempting to prevent their ex-spouse from having a role in their child's life. There may be several reasons given for this. Firstly, they may be convinced that they are a superior parent, and their role in the child's life should take precedence.

Secondly - and this is sadly quite common - they may be attempting to punish their ex by withholding child contact.

These clients are most often women. It is as if it is their sole hand to play in a belligerent card game. No matter how far we've come with gender equality, divorce often brings out the excesses of gender stereotypes, with each side wanting to safeguard the power they have with the tools at hand.

For men, this is more likely to be money if they have taken on the traditional role of breadwinner; for women this will conversely be their children. It's a grim kind of top trumps.

Divorce is tough and abrasive and allows our least appealing qualities to come to the fore, but trying to break contact with a parent - usually the father - is not a defensible tactic, anymore than stashing money away offshore to avoid giving it up to the ex would be defensible.

Having seen what happens when children lose contact with a parent and that relationship is allowed to die, it is not something that a morally responsible lawyer - with his or her client's best interests at heart - should facilitate.

There will always be some lawyers who accept those kinds of instructions and help wage a campaign against the other parent to destroy their credibility; at Vardags we are not prepared to go down that road.

At the end of that road, several years down the line, you will find those children now grown up: emotionally damaged through having only half the parental care they deserve and feeling thoroughly short-changed.

By then, it's all too late.