This week the headlines have been full of claims that fathers have now been given equal rights to see their children, following the launch of a government consultation for proposed laws for parents on separation. However, this is not actually the case, and with lawyers warning of an increase in disputes between parents, and fathers' rights groups claiming they are the "worst Father's day card ever", the proposals have met with a confused and lukewarm reaction. So what has the Government actually proposed?
What the proposals will do:
- Amend the law to place an explicit requirement on courts to consider the benefit of the child having a continuing relationship with both parents, alongside other factors affecting their welfare.
The government has suggested four options as to how this would be achieved, from placing this as the starting point for the courts to consider when asked to make an order for who a child should live with or how often a parent sees their child, to it just being one of the factors they must consider.
What the proposals won't do:
- Give parents a legal or equal right to see their child. Currently, there is no legal right for a parent to see their child, the law currently being focused on the child's welfare, rather than on any rights of the parent.
Where one parent is preventing the other from seeing their child, they can apply to the court for an order that contact. In most cases, unless there are concerns about the child's safety, this will be granted. But that is not an absolute guarantee and the proposals will not change that.
Again, this reflects the prevailing view that providing a starting point for how much time a child spends with each parent runs the risk of ignoring what is best for the child, where individual circumstances are not suited for a one size fits all approach.
When launching the proposals, the Government said that their aim is to shift the perception that the courts are biased towards on parent and they wish to make clear that both parents should play an important part in their child's life. In practice, however, the courts generally take that approach, and yet the perception of unfairness remains. But are new laws the best way of changing the perception? There is a risk of further confusing parents as to what their legal position is, as has been seen in the reporting of the proposals.
It is undoubtedly better for children that both of their parents play a proper role in their upbringing if they are able, and any steps that can help parents resolve their difficulties outside of the court, whether directly or through alternative services such as mediation, should be encouraged. But surely the best way to ensure that both parents can and do play an active role in their child's life is to highlight the benefits of an active involvement and to place an equal role of the value of both parents, not just on separation, but at all stages of a child's life and at all levels of society.