The Daily Telegraph disclosed today that children are for the first time to be given the legal right to have a proper relationship with both their parents after a divorce.
The decision overturns the main finding of the independent family justice by David Norgrove, which reported in November. Today, Mr Norgrove criticised the plans, insisting that his review had “concluded that the law should not be changed”.
He said: “The independent Family Justice Review panel thoroughly considered the issue of shared parenting and concluded that the law should not be changed.”
“The family justice system must deliver the best possible outcome for all the children and families who use it, because its decisions directly affect the lives and futures of all those involved, and have repercussions for society as a whole.
“If the Government has decided to legislate, I regret that, and it will be vital to find words that avoid the difficulties encountered in Australia.”
Mr Norgrove had originally proposed a right to equal access in law for both parents last March and then dropped it from his final 220-page report in November.
He said it would put too much pressure on judges to set out the exact length of time that each divorced parent should spend with their children. Mr Norgrove cited evidence from Australia which suggested children suffered more when courts imposed time limits on access to parents.
Currently, family courts decide to leave children with their mothers in the vast majority of divorce cases.
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.
The review is also likely to examine whether to give grandparents rights to see their grandchildren after a divorce.
The Coalition agreement, which was agreed in May 2010 and is seen as the blue print for Government policy, commits ministers “to look at how best to provide greater access rights to non-resident parents and grandparents”.
The working group – education ministers Tim Loughton and Sarah Teather, and justice minister Jonathan Djanogly – will come up with proposals within two months.
Mr Loughton said that Mr Norgrove had read too much into the Australian example. He said: “The concept of ‘shared parenting’ after a break-up often gets confused with the idea of equal time that a child spends with each parent.
“Quite clearly, ordinary living and working arrangements make an equal division impossible, and undesirable, in all but a small minority of cases. In all of this, the most important thing remains the principle that the child’s welfare is the paramount consideration and this must not be diluted.”
Campaigners have long complained that without a legal right to see their children, fathers can be excluded, particularly when a split has been acrimonious.
By creating the new right for children, ministers hope that judges ruling on custody disputes will ensure more equal access for both parents.
Charlie Elphicke MP, a leading campaigner on fathers rights, said: “This is a really welcome step forward. It is something that I feel passionately about. It is a positive step forward for the welfare of children in contract to the muddled and confused thinking of the Norgrove report.”
According to the Office for National Statistics, one in three children, equivalent to 3.8million, lives without their father. Ministers are particularly concerned about boys growing up without a strong male influence. Eight per cent of single parents in Britain are fathers.
Today lawyers questioned whether the plans would work. Brenda Long, Partner, Blandy & Blandy, said: “A legal guarantee of ‘equal access’ however, is not the answer as there are still many cases where equal care is neither practical nor desirable.
“As the Australian experience demonstrates, statements of parental rights merely shift the battle ground and risk putting parents’ rights above the best interests of the children.
“Parents need access to more information about the effects on children of a court fight and how to resolve disputes.”
Robin Charrot, a partner in Manchester-based George Davies Solicitors LLP family, added: “It is hard to see how any re-writing of the law is going to help the current situation.
“The courts already have the very firm view that children have a right to see both parents, and that children almost always benefit from seeing both parents.
“It is heart-breaking that so many children live without their father. However, when a relationship breaks down, it is very difficult in most cases for children to spend equal time with both parents, even if that is what both parents want.
“To make equal time with each parent work, parents usually have to put in even more effort, and cooperate with each other even more than when they were together. You can imagine how hard that is to achieve.”
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