A host of social problems are made worse by the dismal way that ‘contact disputes’ are handled by the courts.
Every year, thousands of couples make their way through the courts, trying to resolve disputes about how to share the upbringing of their children. It has become a crushingly expensive way of creating single-parent families. Nearly half the parents (fathers, usually) who go to law in the hope of increasing the contact they have with their offspring end up losing touch with them completely within two years.
The Government is aware that a whole host of social problems are made worse by the dismal way that “contact disputes” are handled by the courts. The statistics show that children deprived of one parent do less well at school, are more likely to end up on benefits, addicted to drugs, or involved in crime.
It’s pretty obvious that a basic goal of policy in this area ought to be to ensure that children have relationships with both their mother and their father. And yet there is nothing in the existing legislation which even encourages the courts to aim for that outcome. So they don’t. The absence of any such requirement is one reason why so many disputes spend years in court without resolution, and lead to the creation of new single-parent families.
A little-noticed provision in the Bill on families and children in the Queen’s Speech earlier this month could help to remedy that depressing situation. It proposes that both parents should have the right to a meaningful relationship with their children, and that the courts should recognise that right – subject to it being compatible with the safety of the child.
This is a momentous change, with the potential dramatically to improve the way the courts process child contact cases. But for reasons that aren’t clear, it generates enormous hostility.
The Coalition was advised against it by the Norgrove Report, which the previous administration commissioned to examine ways of improving family law. Mr Norgrove insisted that evidence from Australia – which introduced legal provision for a “meaningful relationship” with both parents in 2006 – showed that the result was that children were placed in situations where they were at risk of violence. He also said it had led to more litigation.
His claims have been comprehensively demolished by Patrick Parkinson, an Australian professor of family law. Litigation on child custody cases in Australia did not go up: it went down by a third. And an examination of the evidence showed that Norgrove’s claim that the “meaningful relationship” provision had led to children being put at risk of violence was “without foundation”.
The Government is to be congratulated for having had the courage to ignore Norgrove and insert into the Bill a requirement that both parents should have a meaningful relationship with their children. It is an important start – but it is only a start. If a “meaningful relationship” is not itself defined, it will only become an opportunity for more arguments in court about what it means. The result will be that it means nothing, and so does nothing to improve the chances that both parties in a divorce retain secure ties with their children.
The definition does not need to be put into the new statute, and probably could not be. But it can and should be inserted into the guidance that will dictate how the family courts operate.
Norway has a simple default position in divorce cases: the absent parent gets to look after their children every other weekend. Many states in the US have the same sort of rule. Something similar could be introduced here. It would greatly diminish litigation, and increase the chances that children would have a relationship with both of their separated parents.
In opposition, the Conservatives promised to introduce directives that would help the family courts to produce fewer single-parent families. It will be a dreadful indictment of their performance in office if they fail.