Stop Press - Family law reform a sham
A Sham: the Green Paper on Family Law Reform
- Ministers Filkin and Hodge Abandon Children of Divorce -
An article just published in The Times confirms
the government has rejected
a widely-supported proposal, based on tried and tested practices,
Britain's disgraced Family Court.
The Green Paper, to be released early next month,
hopes to fob off public
outcry with a watered-down substitute.
The Government's spoiler proposal fails to establish
either a presumption of
reasonable contact (ie alternate weekends, midweek visits,
and half the
holidays), US-based parenting-plans, or a firm stance on enforcement.
Instead of building a useful legal framework, Margaret Hodge
and Lord Filkin
have opted for "spin." Soft-focus 'education sessions'
will implore warring
parents to be nice to one another. Nothing will be resolved.
Already a subject of derision within the legal
professions, the Green Paper
can only spur exasperated parents on to further acts of civil
On October 8 last year an independent judicially
led committee put forward
proposals, known as "Early Interventions", designed
most contact disputes before the couple's first court appearance.
initiative builds on a framework, developed by experts, which
sets out what
sort of arrangements are generally in the best interests of
the children. It
had endorsements from the Department for Constitutional Affairs
the President of the Family Division, the High Court judiciary,
Law Bar Association, the chairman of the Solicitors Family
the Coalition for Equal Parenting and the leading child development
On May 25, 2004, an in-house Design Team of
civil servants established by
Margaret Hodge, of the Department for Education and Skills
the proposal without discussion. Instead the DfES wants a
fails to address the basic issue of every contact dispute:
time. The DfES will
make "quality of contact rather than simple quantum the
more important issue".
Under the DfES scheme, applications for more
contact will merely elicit
ruminations on quality. It is a green light to withhold any
even where - as often happens - contact is just two hours
Applications for more access can be dismissed because the
of the applicant's existing contact is good - and hence sufficient
- or bad,
and thus too much.
DfES thinking has not been discussed or reviewed.
By contrast, the Early
Interventions pilot arose from protracted consultation. Six
preliminary research and development culminated in an international
conference on March 27, 2002, chaired by Dame Margaret Booth,
the distinguished former
High Court family judge. Delegates heard that in many other
contact was founded on a mental health perspective on what
was best for the child.
The conference suggested a comparable approach for Britain's
On April 10, 2003, the Early Interventions pilot was presented
multidisciplinary conference led by the Honourable Mrs Justice
of the High Court Family Division. She concluded: "This
is the way forward .
it would be incomprehensible if the pilot project did not
sanction from the DfES and the Department for Constitutional
The project's nuts and bolts are readily grasped.
Is child welfare generally
improved by the exclusion of one parent? Or by near-exclusion?
Or by generous contact? If the objective is - as experts say
contact, the next step is a rough framework outlining what
Is it two hours a fortnight? Alternate weekends? 50/50? Or
Child development specialists believe that "frequent
and continuous contact"
promotes good child-parent relations, decent parenting and
long-term outcomes. Children who keep both parents tend to
be better adjusted, do better at school, form stable relationships
and keep out of trouble. So the vexed issue of contact boils
down to this: what is "frequent and continuous contact"?
Most parents, judges, experts and professionals already agree.
An ideal model of alternate weekends, half the holidays and
midweek visits is hardly controversial.
Once a general framework for negotiation is
in place, parents no longer need
litigate to find out what the child's best interests are.
They can be told
in advance. Parents can still reach arrangements based on
their individual circumstances - but informed by the child-focused
knowledge, backed by the courts, that proper contact means
substantial overnights not two hours a fortnight.
The DfES intends to replace the finished Early
Interventions project with an
unworkable programme preventing proper contact from being
years of consensual professional development was discarded
in order for a
group of civil servants to start again from scratch.
The author is a former solicitor and founder
of New Approaches to Contact
(0208 748 1081; mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org