February 5th, 2012 by Robert Franklin, Esq.
The United Kingdom’s coalition government has announced that it intends to change British family law to promote children’s ongoing relationships with both parents post-divorce. Read about it here (Huffington Post, 2/2/12).
The Tory/Liberal Democratic government of David Cameron and Nicholas Clegg came into office almost two years ago on the wings of promises to reform family law to improve children’s access to their fathers. Accordingly, the government appointed a commission to look into the matter.
Heading the commission was David Norgrove who had no experience with family law either as an attorney, judge or litigant.
For months, attorneys who seemed to be in the know published articles about the outlines they perceived of what would the commission’s report would likely recommend. Those included at first the possibility of a presumption of shared parenting that was later replaced by a guarantee that children would have the right to a full ongoing relationship with both parents.
All that looked promising right up to the day the Norgrove report was issued. Contrary to expectations, the report recommended no substantive change to family law on the issue of a child’s rights to its father post-divorce. Put simply, Norgrove and the others on the panel examined Britain’s family situation and pronounced it just fine, thank you.
Unsurprisingly, that was met with a firestorm of anger and disbelief from many quarters that was sufficient to put the Norgrove Report in its final resting place – the dustbin of history.
But the simple fact of the Norgrove Report must count as a salient feature of the political landscape of family law in the U.K. Consider this article from November 2009, less than two years before the Report was issued (Telegraph, 11/16/09). Results of a 4,000-person poll had just been released showing that fully a third of all children of divorce eventually had no contact at all with their fathers. Fatherlessness was rightly connected with a wide array of delinquent behavior by teenagers and young adults. And the family law system that promoted that very dsyfunctional situation was said to be “failing” and “a mess.”
Given the widespread view that family courts were ill-serving British society, the great expectations of the Norgrove Commission were understandable. Change was needed; people expected it, and rightly so.
That Norgrove met this clarion call for reform with a recommendation for none says a lot about the feckless nature of the man and his committee. But it says more about the politics of family law in the U.K. It says there are forces that oppose change and they have a way of winning the day, even as they did in the committee rooms occupied by Norgrove and his fearless band of do-nothings.
As it turns out though, the forces favoring reform aren’t being put off so easily either. The government announced early last week that, in spite of Norgrove, it would seek to change the law to stem the tide of father loss following divorce or separation.
New rules will be “much clearer that it is vital for children to have an ongoing relationship with both parents”, the Department for Education said.
Divorced and separated fathers will get stronger rights to see their children, in a recognition of equal parenting.
As The Telegraph reported here, that means first a ministerial working group that will recommend legal changes within two months (Telegraph, 2/4/12). One assumes that in turn the same anti-father forces will be brought to bear on the working group that were on the hapless Norgrove. So we’ll see what the outcome is.
But ministers intend to rewrite the law in an attempt to ensure that fathers get improved access to their offspring after a marriage breaks down. A ministerial working group will be announced on Monday to decide how the Children’s Act 1989 needs to be amended.
It’s good to see the issue of children’s rights to their fathers fully in the public eye. The British family law system is a disgrace. Some 90% of primary custody there is granted to mothers who are then free to do pretty much anything to deny fathers access. The unsurprising result is the scandalous figure of 33% of children of divorce having no contact with their fathers.
As a bit of serendipity, the ink was barely dry on the Norgrove Report when British youth engaged in two days of drunken riots that terrorized their fellow citizens and destroyed large swaths of retail property. How many of those young people had grown up without a father, is unknown, but the behavior fairly shouted “fatherlessness” to all with ears to hear.
Whatever the final wording of the working group’s recommendations, whatever final bill is passed and signed into law, not much will change in the way family courts decide custody cases. Don’t look for many more British children to get much more time with their fathers. It’ll be more of the same for one very good reason – British courts have a strong anti-father bias that’s not about to be undone by plaintive words urging them to keep fathers and children together.
Face it, there’s nothing in British law now that requires mothers to get custody 90% of the time, but they do. There’s nothing that urges courts to ignore fathers’ complaints of thwarted access but they do too. Indeed, my guess is that there’s not a judge in the whole system who would admit to an anti-father animus. But unless British dads are among the worst people in the world, there’s no other way to read the situation; only such a bias can explain the 90% figure that holds year after year through all the changes in British society and culture.
Here in the U.S. we have proof positive of just how resistant to change family courts are when it comes to deciding custody. In the late 90s, the State of Oregon decided to reduce the percentage of sole maternal custody cases, so it changed the law to effect just that. But five years later, it had had no effect. Why? Because mothers and judges were using the domestic violence exception to the custody law to deprive fathers of a meaningful relationship with their children.
Of course there’s no proof that many of the allegations of DV were true. In fact, many mediators, custody evaluators and the like claim that up to 70% of the claims were outright fabrications to gain a leg up in the custody battle. And even when the allegations might have been technically true, the great majority of DV is entirely non-injurious and certainly not of a nature to justify exclusion of a man from his child’s life. But DV allegations proved remarkably effective at doing just that and do so to this day.
So anyone who believes that British judges, who are if anything, less father-friendly than their U.S. counterparts, will do a sudden about-face due to whatever new law the Cameron/Clegg government comes up with, is, I predict, in for a rude surprise.
The battle for children’s rights to their fathers goes on. The countless people who know that a child needs both parents will not be bought off by half measures that have little real effect. Astonishingly, it’s one of the hardest battles ever waged, but the tide of history is with us, even if the latest fracas in the U.K. is just a tiny wave.