The following was submitted by Becky Jarvis of Families Need Fathers in the United Kingdom.
As a keen follower of Fathers & Families we have been interested in several articles written by Robert Franklin, Esq. published in the last week or so. Those of you over the pond might be led to believe that the tide is changing somewhat here in the UK. We lag behind many forward-thinking States in America. The Observer article referred to on October 4th shows what progress is being made. Mr Franklin is right to suggest that what is needed is a cultural shift in the UK; what we also need is a change in the Law.
Families Need Fathers (FNF) (www.fnf.org.uk) was probably one of the first organisations set up worldwide to support both parents in having a relationship with their children; we were born in 1974 and registered as a charity in 1979. We feel both pride and sadness for having been around for so long, pride that we have helped so many families, but sadness because we haven”t stopped children from having to go through the tragic ordeal of losing out on a relationship with both parents after separation and divorce.
England and Wales preside under the same law when it comes to family issues. It is not divided into counties like the US has states. The Scots have a different legal system – and we have a Scottish office to help with these different issues. The culture, however, is UK-wide.
We try to distance ourselves from the ‘fathers rights” tag that haunts us. The rights-based argument hasn”t won us any favours. We describe ourselves as a child welfare organisation and we are the UK”s leading shared parenting charity. First and foremost we provide support. We have a helpline, 52 branches across the country which are open to everyone. Members can receive support material, a list of local contacts and a very popular 24-hour internet forum. We have three offices London, Liverpool and Edinburgh and we also have a base in Wales. We have 16 staff members and our funding comes from membership fees, charitable foundations and the Government.
FNF is also a campaigning organisation and we lobby for change. Over the last few years, the organisation has transformed and we are now the respected voice of shared parenting, throughout the government, third sector organisations and the media. I don”t even get raised eyebrows anywhere when I walk through a door and they realise that I am a woman working for FNF.
We have also achieved some notable successes. Shared parenting was barely spoken of a while back. This year it featured in the new Government”s Coalition Agreement, the policy framework agreed by the two ruling parties. It”s a step forward, but well short of what we need and what the children of the UK deserve.
We were also promised a review of the family justice system, which we have continually pressed for and now have. No doubt about it – this is our opportunity for change. All this is very good timing, for as Mr Franklin reported Lord Justice Wall, President of the Family Division spoke at our AGM mid-September and this attracted a huge amount of media attention.
I can understand why Mr Franklin would assume that “the review of family law has been largely cloaked in mystery’. If I had to rely on media reports I would think the same. So I can, perhaps, shed a little bit of light from an organisation inside the tent.
We have responded and given evidence to the panel. Unlike some of my esteemed colleagues in the sector, I have not been through this before. I am more optimistic than most. I believe that there will be substantial reforms and that the review panel are committed to change. The main reasons for this are that it is in meltdown and we just can”t afford the system any longer. We have run out of money and this is an area where savings can be made and better policy can come from it.
The legal system is divisive and encourages conflict. Cafcass (officers appointed by the court to advise judges on cases) reports are far too often only delivered after long delays. Due to the lack of judicial continuity, cases are often not handled thoroughly and expeditiously. The system costs around £800 million a year, and that is rising.
We propose a new system, as well as a new path to family justice, based on the presumption of Shared Parenting and reducing costs to the Government, to individuals and to society.
We propose the following private law path:
1. Shared Parenting: from the start, it will be explained to divorcing parents what they can expect and what will be expected of them. All parents will undertake a mandatory educational parenting session.
2. Parents will submit their Parenting Agreement for judicial approval, which would be made within a defined timeframe. In the majority of cases, there will be no need for a formal hearing or attendance at Court.
3. If parents cannot agree or one parent is resistant to parenting time arrangements both parents will undergo a high-conflict parenting course, before returning to Court.
4. The agreement will be automatically considered by a judge 3 months from the initial agreement (on the basis of written submissions, not a hearing) to confirm the arrangements are working satisfactorily. If not, a parenting support workshop will be made available.
5. If after an order or parenting plan has been agreed, and one parent breaches the order or arrangement, the parents will immediately have to return to Court, before their assigned judge (where possible) within 48 hours to resolve issues.
6. If an order/parenting plan has been breached, parents will have to attend or return to the high-conflict parenting course and they will have to return to court again.
Cafcass will have a different set of responsibilities, and its remit narrowed. In addition, there needs to be more signposting throughout the family justice system, and clearer information given to users. Our path could save the state more than £100 million net by cutting the legal aid budget and by slimming down Cafcass.
Does this all sound familiar? Well, yes. We have gained a lot from looking at how specific US states work, especially Florida.
Do we think that we are on the side of history? Time will tell, but public opinion seems to be with us. Some politicians really get it and even the media are beginning to listen.