Absent fathers are to be given a new legal right to spend time with their children, unless they are likely to cause them harm, under changes to access laws unveiled yesterday.
Fathers will get the legal right to see their children but the Law Society warned it could lead to confusion
Ministers announced that they were pushing ahead with controversial new shared parenting laws despite opposition from legal experts over the changes.
Courts will also be required to consider the rights of grandparents after divorce or separation, although the Government has decided not to legislate to legally ensure they are offered access.
The decision to introduce the new law, which is expected to come into effect next year, comes despite an official review of shared parenting arrangements advising against the move.
However, senior Government figures including David Cameron believe that the rights of fathers to spend time with their children should be legally recognised.
The new legislation states that judges should ensure that fathers are given the legal right to spend time to develop a meaningful relationship with their sons or daughters – providing a child’s wellbeing is not jeopardised by such a relationship.
It will be for judges to determine the appropriate time and arrangements, if this cannot be agreed during meditation sessions between estranged parents.
In a letter to MPs setting out the legal changes, Edward Timpson, the children’s minister, said: “Our starting point in drafting this legislation is based on two principles. Firstly, that the safety and welfare of children is paramount. Secondly, that mothers and fathers should have the opportunity to play a positive role in their children’s lives, when it is safe and in their best interests”.
He added that the law does not currently “fully recognise the important role that both parents can play in a child’s life.”
“We have concluded that this is best achieved by introducing a presumption in law that a child’s welfare is furthered by the involvement of both parties – where that is safe and in the child’s best interests,” Mr Timpson said.
The decision is likely to be welcomed by fathers groups, including Fathers for Justice who have launched high-profile protests such as scaling the roof of Buckingham Palace, in an attempt to draw attention to the perceived unfairness of the system.
However, Alan Beith, the Liberal Democrat chairman of the Parliamentary Justice committee, wrote to the Prime Minister over the summer warning that the proposal would “simply lead to confusion” and risked “undermining the central principal that the welfare of the child is paramount.”
The Law Society also described the proposal as “seriously flawed”.
It said: “We believe the government understands perfectly well that the case against a legislative presumption is underpinned by experience, expertise and evidence which are absent from the case for legislative change.”
Mothers who defy court orders ordering them to give access to absent families will also face a range of penalties including the removal or passports or driving licenses and the imposition of home curfews.
Ministers are understood to have decided to act amid growing evidence over the importance of children having an ongoing relationship with their fathers.
Recent research conducted in the wake of the 2011 summer riots found that of the country’s most troubled families, about 60 percent or 72,000 families are headed by a single mother and there is no “male role model” in the child’s home life.
Department for Education – Family justice reform – shared parenting