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http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2005/mar/02/children.immigrationpolicy

Fathers get raw deal on child access, say MPs

By Clare Dyer

The Guardian - Wednesday 2nd March 2005

Separated and divorced fathers get a raw deal from the family justice system in England and Wales, a committee of MPs concludes in a report today.

The constitutional affairs committee said there was no "conscious" bias in the courts against "non-resident" parents, mainly fathers, but failings in the system made it difficult for them to keep contact with their children.

The committee, which heard evidence from judges, lawyers and fathers' groups for an inquiry into the family courts, found that inbuilt delays in the system conspired against fathers wishing to see their children and could be exploited tactically by mothers to try to deny contact.

"There are considerable grounds for accepting that non-resident parents are frequently disadvantaged by the system as it is administered at present," they said.

This disadvantage would continue while court delays persisted, while cases could not be brought back to court quickly or before the same judge, and while judges had limited powers to ensure their contact orders were obeyed.

The MPs called for "a clear and unequivocal commitment to move as many cases as possible from the court system altogether". They said parents should be given help to resolve their disputes by negotiation, with the courts as a last resort.

It was "unclear" whether the reforms outlined in a government green paper would achieve this result. Where there was no option but go to court, cases should be effectively managed and delays kept to a minimum, the MPs said.

The government is piloting a "family resolution" project in three courts. To help cut cases going to court, parents are to be trained in anger management and negotiating skills, and given parenting classes.

The MPs said it was "disappointing" that an "early intervention" scheme based on a successful model in Florida, which included compulsory mediation and had strong support from judges, was not to be tried in Britain.

The children's and family court advisory and support service, known as Cafcass, is to be given a new role, helping to facilitate contact arrangements for families rather than be engaged in writing lengthy reports for court cases.

But the MPs warned that this reform would fail unless substantial resources were provided for Cafcass.

The committee rejected calls by some fathers' groups for 50-50 parenting time or any other strict formula, arguing that "an arbitrary apportionment of time does not take account of the views of children".

But it calls for a statement, to be enshrined in law, saying it would be in the interests of children to sustain a full relationship with both parents unless there were good reasons to the contrary.

The report blamed "lack of transparency" as a big factor in bringing about dissatisfaction with the family courts, which hear most cases behind closed doors. An "obvious move" would be to allow the press and public into the family courts, under appropriate reporting restrictions and subject to the judge's discretion to exclude the public.

The MPs also called for a change in the law to allow grandparents an automatic right to apply for contact with their grandchildren.

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