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Stop Press - Family law reform a sham

A Sham: the Green Paper on Family Law Reform
- Ministers Filkin and Hodge Abandon Children of Divorce -

An article just published in The Times confirms the government has rejected a widely-supported proposal, based on tried and tested practices, to reform Britain's disgraced Family Court.

The Green Paper, to be released early next month, hopes to fob off public outcry with a watered-down substitute.

The Government's spoiler proposal fails to establish either a presumption of reasonable contact (ie alternate weekends, midweek visits, and half the holidays), US-based parenting-plans, or a firm stance on enforcement. Instead of building a useful legal framework, Margaret Hodge and Lord Filkin have opted for "spin." Soft-focus 'education sessions' will implore warring parents to be nice to one another. Nothing will be resolved.

Already a subject of derision within the legal professions, the Green Paper can only spur exasperated parents on to further acts of civil disobedience.

Contact: a question of time
The Times, Law Section, page 7, 22.6.04

On October 8 last year an independent judicially led committee put forward proposals, known as "Early Interventions", designed to resolve most contact disputes before the couple's first court appearance. The initiative builds on a framework, developed by experts, which sets out what sort of arrangements are generally in the best interests of the children. It had endorsements from the Department for Constitutional Affairs Minister, the President of the Family Division, the High Court judiciary, the Family Law Bar Association, the chairman of the Solicitors Family Law Association,
the Coalition for Equal Parenting and the leading child development experts.

On May 25, 2004, an in-house Design Team of civil servants established by Margaret Hodge, of the Department for Education and Skills (DfES), rejected the proposal without discussion. Instead the DfES wants a substitute which fails to address the basic issue of every contact dispute: time. The DfES will make "quality of contact rather than simple quantum the more important issue".

Under the DfES scheme, applications for more contact will merely elicit ruminations on quality. It is a green light to withhold any increase even where - as often happens - contact is just two hours a fortnight. Applications for more access can be dismissed because the alleged "quality" of the applicant's existing contact is good - and hence sufficient - or bad, and thus too much.

DfES thinking has not been discussed or reviewed. By contrast, the Early Interventions pilot arose from protracted consultation. Six years of preliminary research and development culminated in an international conference on March 27, 2002, chaired by Dame Margaret Booth, the distinguished former High Court family judge. Delegates heard that in many other countries contact was founded on a mental health perspective on what was best for the child.

The conference suggested a comparable approach for Britain's children. On April 10, 2003, the Early Interventions pilot was presented at a multidisciplinary conference led by the Honourable Mrs Justice Bracewell of the High Court Family Division. She concluded: "This is the way forward . it would be incomprehensible if the pilot project did not receive official sanction from the DfES and the Department for Constitutional Affairs."

The project's nuts and bolts are readily grasped. Is child welfare generally improved by the exclusion of one parent? Or by near-exclusion? Or by generous contact? If the objective is - as experts say - "generous" contact, the next step is a rough framework outlining what this means. Is it two hours a fortnight? Alternate weekends? 50/50? Or somewhere in between?

Child development specialists believe that "frequent and continuous contact" promotes good child-parent relations, decent parenting and improved long-term outcomes. Children who keep both parents tend to be better adjusted, do better at school, form stable relationships and keep out of trouble. So the vexed issue of contact boils down to this: what is "frequent and continuous contact"? Most parents, judges, experts and professionals already agree. An ideal model of alternate weekends, half the holidays and midweek visits is hardly controversial.

Once a general framework for negotiation is in place, parents no longer need litigate to find out what the child's best interests are. They can be told in advance. Parents can still reach arrangements based on their individual circumstances - but informed by the child-focused knowledge, backed by the courts, that proper contact means substantial overnights not two hours a fortnight.

The DfES intends to replace the finished Early Interventions project with an unworkable programme preventing proper contact from being started. Nine years of consensual professional development was discarded in order for a group of civil servants to start again from scratch.

Oliver Cyriax
The author is a former solicitor and founder of New Approaches to Contact
(0208 748 1081;
mailto:mail@cyriax.freeserve.co.uk )

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