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Last Updated: Wednesday, 11 February, 2004, 11:22 GMT
Why 'dad's army' is stepping up the fight
By Stephen Robb
BBC News Online

Fathers for Justice marcher
Marching on London in October 2003
Protesters dressed as superheroes bringing traffic to a standstill have become a more common sight, thanks to fathers' rights campaigners. Is anyone listening to them?

Superheroes closed Bristol's Clifton Suspension Bridge, shut Tower Bridge and the London Eye, and marched on Parliament, trying to make their presence felt. These are protesters who are determined to get noticed.

Fathers-4-Justice, the group behind the demonstrations, knows that protesters are running the risk of imprisonment but says its tactics are a "last resort".

"We are a bunch of guys who are going to be making some pretty scary sacrifices," said F4J founder Matt O'Connor.

The politicians are not dealing with this with the urgency it deserves
F4J founder Matt O'Connor

Mr O'Connor said fathers had been fighting "a steady erosion" of their rights for 30 years, without success. F4J's own meetings with the government had, he said, proved fruitless.

"It is now at the point where we have to fight for basic rights. So many people have lost contact with their children through the courts, it was inevitable something like Fathers-4-Justice was going to emerge," Mr O'Connor said.

He said he believed the group had already achieved considerable success in its first aim of raising awareness of a problem that had "gone unnoticed and unreported".

But F4J's second aim is a tougher proposition - it wants an overhaul of family law within two years.

Orders not enforced

Figures show that mothers gain custody in four out of five disputes - F4J believes that 40% of fathers subsequently lose contact with their children within two years. Mr O'Connor said some of these cases would be due to fathers turning their backs, but he claimed that the "vast majority" were due to mothers denying access.

Protesters dressed as superheroes
Heroes to some, a nuisance to others
Family courts issue contact orders in an attempt to ensure access for the parent not living with their children, but Mr O'Connor said these were worthless because they are not enforced.

"People have complete carte blanche to stop contact, knowing that the judge will do absolutely nothing about it," he said.

The government admits that the enforcement of contact orders is "an issue" that needs to be addressed. A Department of Constitutional Affairs (DCA) spokesman said "courts are understandably reluctant to impose jail terms or fines on mothers who have children to look after".

But F4J believes the solution is to give parents and grandparents "a legal right to see their children and grandchildren".

"The law says you have no legal right to see your children - only a right to apply to a court to see them - but you have a legal obligation to pay for them," said Mr O'Connor. Fathers were forced to support children even when mothers were not being forced to allow those fathers access, he said.

Mediation schemes

But F4J's claims are disputed by family support group One Parent Families, which says there is no way they can know how often mothers deny fathers' rights because there are simply no reliable facts and figures.

Militant Santas make their point
A One Parent Families spokesman said the charity receives 25,000 calls a year and that "one of the most common complaints is that mothers desperately want their children to have contact with their father and they have difficulty maintaining that".

In any case, court orders are only a small part of the overall picture. The DCA says that in more than 90% of break-ups involving children, custody arrangements are agreed outside the courts.

"We are keen to keep couples who split up away from the courts," the DCA spokesman said. "It is not the best way of solving custody disputes. Family courts have an adversarial process that leads to more tension. Plus it is always a longer process.

"What we intend to do is introduce schemes to encourage parents to mediate more, with the help of experts, and come to their own arrangements. Orders agreed by parents themselves are more likely to be adhered to."

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