UK Family Law Reform

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Why more and more women are losing custody battles over their children.

By Sadie Nicholas

Like millions of women of her generation, Karen Martin dared to believe that women really could have it all.

A high-flying creative director at a London advertising agency, she got married, had two children and while her husband, Mark, played the house husband, she was the family breadwinner.

For a while, this very modern arrangement appeared to be working out perfectly.

Then her husband had a fling with a single mother he met at a playgroup and Karen threw him out.

What followed was a traumatic court battle which saw a judge hand custody of her eight-year-old son and six-year-old daughter to their father, who lives on benefits in a council house.

To add insult to injury, the judge ordered Karen to pay maintenance to her former husband.

'At the end of the court case, the children went home with him,' she says. 'I was utterly devastated. I virtually collapsed with shock.'

But 43-year-old Karen's story is far from unusual. Every year, the number of mothers who have little or no contact with their children is rising.

Increasingly, it seems, our courts are favouring husbands over career wives.

The latest Child Support Agency figures show that women are registered as the nonresident parent in 66,900 maintenance cases.

Of course we do not know the details of each story, but the support group Mothers Apart From Their Children (Match) says there are 150,000 mothers in Britain who do not live with their children.

Karen recalls how she was described in court by her former husband's barrister: 'He painted a picture of me as a hard-faced woman who was more interested in board meetings than school plays,' she says. 'It was so far from the truth.'

The reality, she says, was that her ex, a former building site foreman, had volunteered to stay at home with the children because they needed her six-figure salary to pay the mortgage on the family's three bedroom home in North London.

'After his affair, my employers were fantastic and accommodated my need to leave work on time to collect my children.

'The eldest was at school by then and I enrolled the youngest at a nursery. It was a major juggling act, but I was always there to feed and bath the children, and read them bedtime stories.

'I took them to nursery and school every morning and they saw their dad at weekends.'

Then, 18 months ago, the couple went head to head in court to fight for custody.

'Though Mark had not returned to work and was living with his parents in Gloucestershire, the judge ruled it was a more favourable environment for the children than living with a career mother,' says Karen.

'He lives in a council house on benefits. I'm speechless that the courts feel this is a better environment for my children to be raised in than living with a parent who has a strong work ethic and a lovely home.'

But observers point out that while the tide may appear to be turning against working women, this shift in custodial arrangements can be seen as a direct consequence of women's fight for equality in the workplace.

For years men who have fulfilled the traditional role of breadwinner have lost out when it comes to winning custody of their children - regardless of their income.

Now women have asserted their right to enjoy similarly challenging careers, the question of whether they have the right to complain when they lose custody is a pertinent one.

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