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Equal Parenting Council (EPC) and other parenting organizations have been invited to a discussion tomorrow morning with Rt Hon Harriet Harman QC MP on openness and fairness in the family courts. The Minister has said she plans to set out her thinking on family law followed by a discussion on the recommendations made in the consultation paper at http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk
EPC President, Tony Coe, said that his organization was “underwhelmed” by the proposals: Whilst we welcome any move towards ending the secrecy and unfairness that characterizes our family justice system, I’m not sure how these proposals will, in the real world, improve matters for children, parents and grandparents. He added:
1. EPC is in favour of making the family courts as open as possible. We believe that justice in a modern democracy should operate in an environment of total openness with complete public access to all proceedings and rulings. We believe that should always be the over-arching, default principle.
2. At the same time we recognize that there will be circumstances where restrictions have to be put in place to ensure a fair trial and/or the protection of vulnerable children. However, courts should be required to set out compelling reasons for imposing such restrictions after hearing arguments for and against. Such decisions should be subject to an automatic right of appeal. They ought to be the exception rather than the rule.
3. We do not believe that ordinary disputes over residence and contact should ever give rise to such restrictions. Public access is not restricted in any part of USA and, in all our research into Best Practice across USA jurisdictions, we have never heard a complaint that a child suffered harm as a direct result of publicity. (By “ordinary” cases, we mean those where there is no genuine safety issue.)
4. We welcome the addition of the concept of “fairness” alongside that of “openness”. EPC is much more interested in tackling our family courts’ unfair treatment of non-resident (i.e. non-custodial) parents. Non-resident parents are often treated in a derisory manner by judges and CAFCASS. They are routinely awarded zero or paltry parenting time (so-called contact) simply on the say so of the resident (custodial) parent. Yet fairness demands that both parents should be treated equally unless there is proven evidence of unfitness.
5. Fairness cannot be guaranteed under the present legislation which affords the non-resident parent no presumption of ANY parenting time with their child. The Government says there should be no presumption, because that would conflict with the principle that the courts should decide whatever serves the best interests of the child. But this ignores the reality that the resident parent always has a de facto presumption of parenting time - and indeed a presumption of total control over the care of the child. In the vast majority of cases this operates against the child’s welfare.
6. In conclusion, we are much more interested in a discussion about how the system can be improved so that children can be guaranteed frequent, continuing and substantial parenting time with their non-resident parent. (Substantial means between one third and half of the available parenting time.) Openness, while essential, is something of a side issue.
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