moving on

Just a thought about how often in intractable contact cases it is very difficult for parents to move on – not only because of the issues in the case themselves but because of the need to retain eligibility for legal aid – often a parent (typically a father) is unable to go out and look for work to occupy his mind and time because in doing so he will lose his legal aid. It leaves people in a frustrating limbo where they cannot go out and fulfill themselves in other ways and have nothing to focus on but the destructive litigation. There shouldn’t really have to be a choice between gainful employment and being able to pursue a relationship with your child. And in the intractable type of case I’m thinking of I would not be suggesting a parent should be expected to act as a litigant in person.

REPORT: Outcomes of applications to court for contact orders after parental separation or divorce

It has taken me some time to read this report in snatches over the last week. John Bolch has already posted about it, and The Times published an article recording just how ‘furious’ fathers rights campaigners are with it.

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This report is a really interesting piece of work, although much of what it says is no surprise: Everyone in the system works really hard to get parents to agree things…. Delay is a big problem…. CAFCASS are overwhelmed…. The majority of cases end up with some contact, a large proportion with staying contact….There are a difficult few that the courts cannot budge…..

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I’m interested in the take that The Times have on this though, namely that the report’s conclusions“conceal key failings with the present system that give credence to the pain and anger felt by parents who cannot amicably agree contact arrangements over their child or children”.  As John Bolch says The Times journalist gives three reasons: ‘firstly that fathers resent having to go to court in the first place to obtain what they feel should be their right; secondly contact orders may be made, but that contact may be “derisory”, and thirdly courts still remain effectively powerless to ensure contact orders are complied with’.

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But I’m not sure really what the criticism is here – this is a 200 odd page report. It is extremely detailed and deals (as far as is possible from the available data) with the three points raised. And one theme which becomes clear from reading the report in full (rather than just skipping through to the summary and conclusions) is this: that the resident parent (usually mother) is in an inherently strong position simply by being the one with day to day custody of the child. The courts work to counter that starting advantage with some but not complete success. In itself this inherent advantage is not the fault of the system although the problems within the system can compound that inequality. Enforcement is one of several problems which limit the court’s effectiveness. No legal presumption (which is what is being argued for) is going to change that. It isn’t going to affect the number of fathers who do have to rely upon the court to help them get the contact they and their children deserve (so you’ve got a legal right – so I’ll see you in court – same as before). And at my guess it probably wouldn’t radically alter the effectiveness of the courts in performing their role – most litigants either already know or are told by their lawyers or the judge at the outset of proceedings that this is effectively the way things work in any event (he’s going to get contact sooner or later, get over it). A legal presumption would just give fathers something to shout about without necessarily effecting any change in how effective the courts were (CAFCASS reports still take six months, Judges still have limited enforcement options, Mums who are prepared to ignore court orders will still do so).

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And yes, in some cases the quantity or frequency of contact is low, but the statistics contained within the report demonstrate that a large portion of non-resident parents are walking away from the courts with good solid weekend contact. Its not 50:50 or shared care for most parents, but given the geographical distance that is often between parents homes and the realities of a school week where most waking hours are spent away from the resident parent – its very often the most that can be practically manageable both for the parents and the kids. Often its all that is asked for because its what fits with people’s lives.

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Two other things I noticed about this report: 

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Judges, Solicitors, Magistrates and CAFCASS officers were interviewed but no counsel. I don’t know why this was but I think its a shame. I’m sure that the bar would have brought a different perspective (one of the things we do well) to the interviews and that’s an opportunity missed.

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The other point of note is this. There is often a lot of slippage between ‘non-resident parent’ and ‘father’ (Frances Gibb says ‘Fathers – take as shorthand for the non-residential parent’). Whilst the vast majority of the sample cases in the study involved male non-resident parents this was not the case across the board and nor is it the case in day to day practice. Oddly, given the fact that the background of the report was the claim of fathers rights groups that dads are subject to discrimination by the family courts, there is no analysis of the treatment of male NRPs as compared with female NRPs. This may have been because there were insufficient numbers of female NRPs to make the results viable but given that the oft repeated criticism of the family justice system is that it is biased in favour of Mothers and against Fathers it would have been interesting to analyse this (and conversely the treatment of Mothers with residence versus Fathers with residence). It is sloppy to suggest that NRP=DAD. Because it doesn’t. And it is sloppy to suggest that a disadvantage experienced by non-resident parents as a group is equivalent to or proof of discrimination on grounds of sex when in fact the correct comparison has not been carried out. Comparison of the situation of non-resident Dads versus Mums with Residence is bound to suggest a disparity because you are not comparing like for like. The report demonstrates that there is very probably an imbalance of power as between non-resident parents seeking contact and their exes, and that the courts can often only partially redress that imbalance. No doubt it affects men disproportionately (which one might I suppose describe as systemic sexism) but that’s not the same thing as the courts favouring mums over dads.

Rather than concealing failings in the system, I’d have thought that this report provides a wealth of material for fathers rights groups (and anyone else wishing to improve the system) with which to argue for change, increased resources. Perhaps not a document which will much help in campaigning for a presumption of contact but certainly one which could be usefully waved about by those wishing to improve things for children, for dads, for families….Why so furious?

Dads are fandabbydozy (sp?)

I picked up a little pocket card marked with the words ‘dad info’ today, whilst out at the baby weighing clinic (he put on almost half a pound if you’re interested). It led to an interesting little sojourn around the web this afternoon (and a rather meandering blog post…):  

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Dadinfo is a really useful and well put together resource for dads – and mums – and its section on relationship breakdown and legal rights gives a refreshingly balanced and plain english explanation of the position for dads who are worried what will happen if their relationship breaks down and they need to go to court. It doesn’t perpetuate the myth of judicial bias but simply acknowledges the obvious reality that cultural assumptions that we are all prone to rely upon about parenting sometimes play a part in judicial decision making. And of course those cultural assumptions about what it is to be a mum or a dad are being broken down every day. It promotes positive communication and attempts to resolve matters out of court – hurrah. I commend this website to you. I am going to add it to my blog roll now…

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One of the authors of dadinfo is a chap called Gavin Evans (he must be alright ‘cos he lectures for Birkbeck) who writes intelligently about the issue of gender and parenting roles on his blog. Posts and comments on that blog have led me to this book, which is now on my list of books to read just as soon as I have a mo (i.e. when I retire).

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It’s been nice to read these bits and pieces, and when I’m just about to go back to work and ‘abandon’ my little one to the one with the beard its particularly nice to hear about dads who have been involved in equal parenting ventures and made a success of it (not that I didn’t know they were already out there) without being bombarded with father’s rights style militancy. Although I don’t have any trouble with abandoning traditional parenting roles and chopping and splicing ‘mum’ and ‘dad’ roles to suit, you’d be surprised how many odd looks we have had when people hear about our plans for childcare.

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By way of example, last week whilst I was doing a half day at work, my other half was looking after the sprog in a coffee shop, and was told by a middle aged woman: ‘Oh you’re so good with him – my husband never did that with my kids’, as if his ability to sit and hold a 2 month old baby without being supervised by me was something to be marvelled at. Whilst it was obviously intended as a compliment about the modern dad, on his behalf I’m a little insulted all the same. Of course he’s good with him – he’s his DAD. Its not a freak show, lady. 

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Anyway, the point is – you might almost believe from dad.info that being a hands on dad was normal….We need more of that positivity about fatherhood. Dads are gRRRRRRRRRRRRREEEAAAAT! (NOT an endorsement of tooth-rotting-Frosties which are not grRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRREEEEEAAAAT for teeth) RANT ENDS.