I appeared on BBC5 Live this morning to discuss the plans to strengthen the law so children can have an on-going relationship with both parents if they separate. This follows proposals being put forward by Ministers today.
Sections of the media have fixated upon the idea of altering the principles of family justice to include a right for non-resident parents to a “meaningful relationship” with their children.
The present guiding principle of family justice in England & Wales is that the best interests of the child are paramount. By striving always for the welfare of the child, this approach by making it clear the children’s rights come first, it may avoid the polarising conflict implied by focusing on the rights of each parent.
In the vast majority of cases, children are much more likely to thrive if they have a good quality relationship with both parents.
The idea is that parents shall share responsibility for the child’s upbringing but to a certain extent most parents share parental responsibility in any event.
It should be stressed, that the government’s proposals will not mean equal care or time with the children. There may still remain an issue over shared residence arrangements which do not always involve a 50/50 care. It should also be noted that parents sometimes strive for shared residence but there are actually greater powers of enforcement for contact.
The government’s focus, in the end, is for parents to agree rather than for Court intervention and this may involve the creation of a “parenting agreement” together with a greater use of mediation and alternative dispute resolution.
There are perceived problems with the current system involving long delays, a system which acts against fathers and which is very much at the discretion of the Court. The question asked is whether or not these new proposals are likely to be fairer but that perhaps highlights the general concern that there is unfairness within the legal system. Perhaps the focus needs to be on parental responsibility and greater enforcement of breaches of orders with greater penalties. We perhaps also need to break away from the mind set of standard patterns for contact because no two families are ever the same.
Ultimately it will depend on what is to be implemented. The government’s third option is for the Court to work on the presumption that a child’s welfare is likely to be furthered by safe involvement with both parents, unless the evidence shows this is not to be safe or in the child’s best interest.
To a certain extent this should be implicit in the present law as quite clearly a child has a right to know and have a loving relationship to both parents and there is perhaps nothing wrong in now making this potentially explicit but it will not go as far as some fathers would want.
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