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Last Updated: Tuesday, 14 September, 2004, 22:08 GMT 23:08 UK
Law 'outdated' on fathers' rights

By Jon Silverman
Legal affairs analyst

Jason Hatch
Protester Jason Hatch sparked a security alert at Buckingham Palace
There are many in the legal world who have a great deal of sympathy for the principle for which Fathers 4 Justice have campaigned in such a spectacular fashion.

This is because the law has failed to keep pace with changes in society and parenting over the last 20 years.

When fathers tended to be on the margins of child care, it did not seem unreasonable for courts to limit access to children after a parental divorce.

Now, as a growing number of fathers take an equal share in parenting, expectations about contact have changed. But the law has not.

The law should be changed to enshrine the principle of equal parenting time
Marilyn Stowe
Law Society Family Law Panel

Since the 1989 Children Act, the courts have allowed "generous contact" to the parent who is not resident with the child.

Unless there are overwhelming reasons for denying contact altogether, this might be interpreted as one visit mid-week, another at the weekend and having the child to stay every fortnight.

For many fathers, this is not enough.

Marilyn Stowe, Chief Assessor of the Law Society Family Law Panel, sympathises.

Palace intruder
Members of Fathers 4 Justice have staged several high-profile stunts

"I think the law should be changed to enshrine the principle of equal parenting time.

"In that way, you reduce the scope of the argument to a discussion about how the right is exercised without one party starting off with a handicap."

Earlier this year, a Family Division judge, Mr Justice Munby, also argued that fathers were being let down by the present system and suggested that it might even breach the European Convention on Human Rights.

The Conservatives have already pledged to introduce equal parenting arrangements.

But the government appears set on a different course.

Children cannot be divided like the furniture or the CD collection
Constitutional affairs secretary Lord Falconer

In July, it published a Green Paper intended to ensure that both parents maintained a "meaningful" relationship with a child after divorce.

In rejecting demands of a presumption of equal parenting time, the constitutional affairs secretary, Lord Falconer, said: "Children cannot be divided like the furniture or the CD collection."

One of the key problems is the lack of sanction imposed on the resident parent - usually the woman - who refuses to grant contact to a child. It is accepted that contact orders are frequently flouted.

One senior judge, Mrs Justice Bracewell, found a novel solution by transferring the residency from the parent who denied contact to her estranged partner.

But such ad hoc decisions are just a sticking plaster solution.

"Fathers 4 Justice can't be ignored much longer," says Ms Stowe. "I think the law will change."




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