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Last Updated: Tuesday, 9 November, 2004, 12:19 GMT
'No court bias against fathers'
Fathers 4 Justice protest
A recent fathers' rights protest
Claims that family courts are biased in favour of mothers have been rejected by top judge Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss.

The president of the family division told MPs parents were treated equally over custody and access to children.

She attacked Fathers 4 Justice for its stunts which have included throwing powder at Tony Blair in the Commons and scaling the walls at Buckingham Palace.

The constitutional affairs committee hearing into the family court system took place amid tight security.

Dame Elizabeth said she had met other groups, including Fathers Direct and Families Need Fathers, but added: "I cannot meet Fathers 4 Justice because they are not being sensible."

They had, for example, parked a double decker bus equipped with a loudspeaker system outside her private home, she said.

"They are not going to talk, they are going to tell me," she said.

Body searched

She also said that a small number of disputes between parents were irreconcilable and, as far as the courts were concerned, unmanageable.

"Some of those are the vocal people we are hearing," she said.

Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss
Dame Elizabeth: Courts are fair
Visitors to the hearing were body searched and only full Commons pass holders were allowed into the meeting itself, while others were seated in an overflow room to watch proceedings on internal TV screens.

The hearing was the start of an inquiry into how well the family courts are serving parents.

They heard Dame Elizabeth reject notions of bias against fathers in the family courts system, insisting the first priority was always the best interests of the children caught in the middle.

Status quo

"There is nothing in the law to lead courts to chose one parent or another," she said.

"But when parents separate the vast majority of children stay with their mother and a minority with the father.

"At the end of the day, the status quo occurs because the child is settled there," she said.

But Dame Elizabeth accepted there was an unprecedented level of criticism being levelled at the courts over the issue.

In her 30 years experience she had never before come across such a level of criticism.

It was mostly ill-founded and the courts might do more to publicise their decision-making to the public, she said.

She also stressed the desirability of mediation between parents to stop cases reaching the courts in the first place.

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