Fathers' rights movement in the UK

From Academic Kids

The fathers' rights movement in the UK consists of a number of diverse pressure groups, ranging from charities (whose activities are regulated by the Charity Commission) and self-help groups to civil disobedience activists, who started to obtain wide publicity in 2003. The movement's origin can be traced to 1974 when Families Need Fathers (FNF) was founded. At the local level, many activists spend much time providing support for newly separated fathers, most of whom are highly distraught. Although some have been accused of being sexist by uninformed and ostensibly politically correct commentators, these groups also campaign for better treatment for excluded mothers, women in second marriages, other step-parents and grandparents - all of whom suffer discrimination in respect of contact with their (grand)child(ren).

Contents

Leading groups

  • Families Need Fathers (FNF) is a registered charity founded in 1974 well known for its self-help work. It does not regard itself as a fathers' rights organisation, however, pointing out that its primary focus is on the children's rights to have a meainingful relationship with their dad. FNF is regarded by senior family court judges as taking a commonsense approach to bringing about change in the family law system in the UK. It participates in government consultations and working groups. FNF has about 3000 members and over 10,000 former members. FNF has been lobbying the UK Parliament for over 30 years to give greater recognition to the role of fathers in broken families. Its achievements in bringing about policy changes have been modest and it has failed to publicise them. For example, FNF has been credited with having:
    • brought about recognition of paternity for unmarried fathers who have signed the birth certificate;
    • substituted the neutral term "non-resident parent" for the lamentable term "absent parent" in the Child Support regulations;
    • reduced the threshold to 52 overnight stays per year when a father is entitled to take account of the costs of looking after his visiting child.
However laudable, these measures made no impression on the perceived underlying prejudice against fathers in UK private family law. Consequently there is a considerable body of belief within the fathers' rights movement that no significant improvements will be gained without a campaign of civil disruption. Research in the United States has shown that direct action has been more successful over the last ten years at getting environmental law changed than lobbying Congress. Bob Geldof has exhorted all who care about injustice in family law to get political, and this is construed by many to mean taking direct action.
  • Fathers 4 Justice (F4J) takes a proactive approach to generating awareness of fathers' issues. It generates considerable publicity through planned actions e.g. throwing purple (its campaign colour) flour at the Prime Minister, and Batman landing on Buckingham Palace. It organises stylish and colourful dress-up demonstrations as part of its campaign of direct action. Their antics have been described as totally irresponsible and yet the attendant publicity, coordinated by Matt O'Connor, has managed to inform the British public of an issue that others had failed to do hitherto.

There are also a number of other groups (http://www.fnf.org.uk/links.htm#groups) specialising in particular needs.

Fathers rights issues

There are a number of issues which drive the participants in the fathers' rights movement:

  • Joint residence (aka shared parenting) is seldom used as an expedient to resolve family child residency disputes, frequently resulting in fathers being marginalised and unable to perform effectively in their capacity as fathers.
  • When contact is denied, the courts frequently do not enforce their own orders
  • Whereas mothers get parental responsibility automatically, fathers only do so if they were married to the mother or signed the birth certificate
  • Fathers are obliged to pay means tested child support irrespective of whether they are allowed to see their children, and with no account taken of the mother's household's income.
  • Paternity leave is inadequate compared to maternity leave
  • Contact centre places are hard to obtain because of inadequate funding and at the same time their use is frequently demanded unreasonably - resulting in children being unnecessarily deprived of the love and care of their non-resident parent.
  • When a father makes representations in court to see his child when this is being obstructed by the mother, adversarial court proceedings against the mother are inevitably the cause of further conflict. If a court can determine that a child should see its father, this could be done without reference to the mother, who may be deemed irrelevant to the proceedings in cases of implacable hostility.

Political lobbying

Whilst the line taken by government ministers for a long time has been one of denial that there is a problem, with no plans for new legislation, Lord Filkin[1] (http://www.politicallinks.co.uk/politics2/biog/LD_Biogs/bio.asp?id=2441), the family justice minister announced at the beginning of April 2004 that there will be a green paper outlining proposals intended to improve the methods used to settle child custody disputes[2] (http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk_news/story/0,3604,1184913,00.html). This has now been published [3] (http://www.dfes.gov.uk/childrensneeds/docs/DfesChildrensNeeds.pdf) with the title Parental Separation: Children’s Needs and Parents’ Responsibilities, but activists have expressed the view that it does not seriously address the fundamental issues, particularly the courts' generation of inter-parental conflict by making it necessary to have adversarial proceedings.

In the Queen's Speech at the Opening of Parliament on 27th November 2004, Her Majesty said [4] (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/4034947.stm):

My Government believes that the welfare of children is paramount. Draft legislation will be published to safeguard the welfare of children in circumstances of parental separation and inter-country adoption.

Legal issues

The new system in the UK whereby the amount of child support that, in the vast majority of cases, the father pays, is acknowledged to be less fair than the old because it has ceased to take into account the other household's income. This is justified on the grounds that it saves administrative cost for the government agency concerned.

There are issues to do with the non-enforcement of Contact Orders - orders made by family court judges which oblige the so-called resident recalcitrant parent (usually the mother) to let the children spend some time with their dad. Such orders are not required if the mother is cooperative about letting the children see their dad, but generally speaking no action is taken if such an order is made and she flouts it.

The main issue, however, is to do with the adversarial nature of the system, in which most parents are dissatisfied, according to a UK government report published in 2004, and the only winners are lawyers.

A brief history of recent reform

In 2001 Mr Justice Wall (now Lord Justice) chaired a Children Act Sub-Committee (known as CASC). They reported in March 2002 in a document called "Making Contact Work". It called for "urgent reform". It was a sort of Hutton Inquiry of family law reform. It is well known that Wall LJ was very vexed when nothing at all appeared to happen for over two years.

The Facilitation and Enforcement stakeholder group was however created to discuss the CASC report. The impression formed by many involved in this group was that the government had no true appetite for reform, and just hoped the problem would go away.

Fathers 4 Justice have had remarkable success in bringing the whole subject to the nation's attention at a bottom-up grass-roots level, and the fathers' stories they relate have appalled many people. (For an example see [5] (http://www.equalparenting.org/Download/FAMILY%20X%20CASE%20STUDY%20TIMELINE%2015.11.04.pdf)).

An activist called Oliver Cyriax has run conferences promoting early intervention. These were attended by high ranking members of the judiciary, including from overseas, where schemes that promote retaining both parents' involvement in childcare, but leave the courts as last resort, have been successful - notably in Florida and California. There is an alliance made up of senior members of the Solicitors Family Law Association (SFLA), Family Law Bar Association (FLBA), Hamish Cameron (the child psychiatrist with the President's ear), Fathers Direct and the campaigning charity Families Need Fathers. President of the UK Family Division of the courts Dame Butler-Sloss has said she supports this plan.

Fathers' Rights campaigners urgently want an "Early Interventions Pilot Plan" to test and develop compulsory mediation and parenting plans, etc. backed up by a strict enforcement regime.

Green Paper

In July 2004 the UK Government published a Green Paper [6] (http://www.dfes.gov.uk/childrensneeds/) in response to the two year old Making Contact Work document, and the more recent Child Contact Survey [7] (http://www.dfes.gov.uk/childcontactsurvey/). Only the year before, the Government had been indicating that no legislative changes in this area were planned, so this is a turnaround whose timing is generally felt to be the result of the efforts of fathers' rights activists. The Women's Aid response to this paper [8] (http://www.womensaid.org.uk/policy&consultations/consultationresponses/Parental_separation_full_response.htm) contains the following: We believe that legislation is still required to create a rebuttable presumption in family proceedings legislation that child contact is not awarded unless and until it can be shown to be safe, and that this should be done through a mandatory risk assessment process. The response does not make clear whether this provision is intended to apply to both parents involved in a child residence dispute.

Party Politics

At the same time, the Conservative Party has started making noises that fundamental changes in the law are required [9] (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/3883927.stm). Some observers have expressed regret that this has become a party political issue, but this development goes to the heart of gender politics and could become an important vote swinger at the forthcoming General Election. The Labour Party is seen to support the status quo, reflecting the radical feminist stance taken by CAFCASS's trade union NAPO. This position, originally detailed in NAPO's anti-sexist policy document (which includes the statements: Family Court work is an important opportunity to build on the strengths and the expansion of women's roles and ...to develop policies and strategies which challenge the discrimination against women in contested residence and contact decisions), espouses the view that women in society need to be supported in their decision-making capacity in order to resist the forces of patriarchy. The Opposition stance is that such a policy is against the existing Children Act, which has effectively been hijacked by idealologues in powerful positions in organisations such as CAFCASS, supported widely by Social Services departments. The Fathers Rights' movement has drawn attention to the marginalisation of men in society by this radical feminist tendency, supported by the Government most particularly in the appointment of Margaret Hodge, a skillful non-denial denier [10] (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/politics/3268323.stm) and feminist who is a key figure in the ministerial sisterhood, that group of long-standing feminist friends who have managed to network their way into the very heart of government [11] (http://www.melaniephillips.com/articles/archives/000127.html).

The Liberal Democrats, the other major UK political party, has framed the issue in terms of domestic violence, but yet has to communicate its ideas widely.

Also see Update of 02 Dec 2004 article.

"Safety"

One thesis is that children should only remain resident with one parent if it is considered safe to do so; otherwise it is generally better to have both parents involved in bringing up their children. Whilst this might seem to be reasonable, it is unfortunately turned around by some influential politicians to mean that the children should remain exclusively under the control of the mother unless the father can prove that he is "safe", i.e. that he has not had accusations of domestic violence levelled against him. If he has, then he is considered "unsafe" until a finding of fact can be made in his favour, i.e. that the allegations were unfounded.

There is considerable confusion surrounding the issue of "safety" by politicians in the context that is used to deny parental access, particularly as it is a fact that most children's injuries occur in the living room at home, according to statistics published by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA), and fewer malicious injuries to children are done by fathers than by mothers, according to an NSPCC report in 2000 called Child Maltreatment in the United Kingdom: A Study of the Prevalence of Child Abuse and Neglect [12] (http://www.aifs.gov.au/nch/pubs/nl2001/winter2.html), which stated that "most violence occurred at home (78 per cent) with mothers being primarily responsible in 49 per cent of cases and fathers in 40 per cent of cases".

Constitutional Affairs Committee

The government in 2004 set up a select committee to look into Family Law in the UK. In relation to the way in which the fathers' rights campaign has been received, the following interchange took place during the taking of oral evidence on Family Justice: The Operation of The Family Courts [13] (http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200304/cmselect/cmconst/uc1247-i/uc124702.htm) at the House of Commons on Tuesday 9 November 2004.

Lord Justice Wall: A few years ago I went to address the annual general meeting of Families Need Fathers and I was actually very impressed by the strength of their feelings and their emotions. The message I gave them - and I was not the only one doing it - was that the way to succeed, the way to get into the system, is not to sloganise but actually to get on the committees, get in with government where there is lots going on and people want to consult you, and respond to Making Contact Work. We had an excellent response from Families Need Fathers, part of which we incorporated, and I think Families Need Fathers has become a key player in the debate about on-going contact and joint residence. We make progress with rational argument; we do not make progress by sloganising.

Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss: I cannot meet Fathers4Justice because they are not being sensible. As long as they throw condoms with purple powder and send a double-decker bus with a loudspeaker outside my private house in the West Country there is no point in talking to them; they are not going to talk, they are going to tell me.

Those present included Rt Hon Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss DBE, Rt Hon Lord Justice Wall and Hon Mr Justice Munby, His Honour Judge Meston QC, District Judge Michael Walker and District Judge Nicholas Crichton.

It is worth noting here that what is being "demanded" by F4J and what is being "politely asked for" by Families Need Fathers is one and the same.

David Blunkett Story

UK Home Secretary David Blunkett was reported in November 2004 to have started a paternity suit against a former lover. The former lover, Kimberly Quinn, the American-born publisher of The Spectator magazine, claimed that the children 'belong' to her and her husband, Stephen Quinn, the publisher of British Vogue, and wants to make her marriage work without interference from David Blunkett. It was reported in newspapers on November 29th that Mr Blunkett had discovered, using paternity testing, that he is the natural father of his former lover's two-year-old son, William. Newspapers reported that Mrs Quinn's husband believed that Mr Blunkett was vindictive in wanting to have anything to do with the children, even if Mr Blunkett was the natural father.

The interesting ethical question is whether it is better for the children to be brought up by a married couple, even if the husband turns out not to be their natural father. Or whether it is better to allow a man with whom the mother once had an affair to remain involved in the children's lives, regardless of how that involvement might affect her present marriage.

The issue of paternity in the case of David Blunkett may not have to be established. The case of K v M (Paternity: Contact) 1996 1 FLR 312, was one where the mother had had an extra-marital affair but became reconciled with her husband, who could have been - and accepted himself as - the child's father. Irrespective of biological parentage, there was no prospect of the other man having contact and, accordingly, it was held not to be in the child's interests to determine the issue of paternity. One of the main intentions of marriage is to provide a stable environment for any children, and therefore the preservation of the marriage was viewed in this case to be better for the child than the preservation of a relationship based solely on biology.

Even if he is allowed to prove that he is the child's father, family law precedent in the UK would make it look likely that Mr Blunkett will be unsuccessful in his quest to have a meaningful relationship with his children, unless he can show that there are special circumstances to this case to override this precedent. In the case of Re H (A Minor)(Parental responsibility), it is reported:

A father was refused contact with his 2-year-old son because the mother's new husband's objection to contact was such that the marriage and the child's welfare would be placed at risk. The Court of Appeal dismissed the father's appeal.

(But see discussion)

On December 15th 2004, Mr Blunkett resigned as Home Secretary. In an interview[[14] (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/4099581.stm)] the same day with the BBC, he indicated that he had been willing to sacrifice his political career to pursue his paternity claim his ex-lover's son. He said of his son, "He will want to know not just that his father actually cared enough about him to sacrifice his career, but he will want to know, I hope, that his mother has some regret."

News updates

  • Events:

June 2004: Practical Steps to Co-parenting (http://www.sfla.co.uk/mediadisplay.php?id=63) published by SFLA.

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