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Last Updated: Wednesday, 21 July, 2004, 14:28 GMT 15:28 UK
Equal parenting rights rejected
Parents with child
Fathers rights groups want an equal split in care
The idea of promising divorced parents 50-50 access to their children is being rejected by ministers.

Children cannot simply be divided up "like property" when a marriage collapses, says the government.

The decision in a consultation paper for England and Wales on Wednesday has angered fathers' rights groups.

But courts are already being given new advice to speed up hearings. The plans also contain new measures for mediation and enforcing access orders.

Between 15,000 and 20,000 couples go to court to resolve access disputes each year, although in nine out of 10 separations there is no court intervention.

Wednesday's green paper is technically the start of consultation on how to take the anger out of relationship breakdowns.

Children's rights

The Conservatives and pressure group Fathers 4 Justice, whose recent headline-grabbing demonstrations included flour bombing the Prime Minister in the Commons, want an equal split between parents on access enshrined in law.

There are currently no guidelines on how much time a non-resident parent should have with their children.

The law has to have teeth
Matt O'Connor
Fathers 4 Justice

Ministers deny courts are biased against fathers and say the interests of children should be paramount in all cases.

Constitutional Affairs Secretary Lord Falconer told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "We all know from our own experience that a 50-50 time split does not represent in a large number of cases a practical way to care best for children."

There needed to be early mediation to stem disputes over access, said Lord Falconer.

The head of the family courts had written to judges stressing the need for quick contact hearings, as well as for judges to stay with specific cases.

Enforcement powers

Cafcass (the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service) should also be actively trying to get a practical solution rather than having to spend time writing reports, said the minister.

And there should be new ways for courts to enforce access orders.

"We give the courts a much greater menu of enforcement powers, so it's not just prison, which is a non-starter in most of the cases, it's a whole range or other things as well," added Lord Falconer.

Other plans in the consultation paper include:

  • Developing parenting plans to give parents advice on arrangements found to have worked

  • Extending in-court conciliation - more informal hearings before contested court cases

  • Better access to legal, emotional and practical advice by telephone and internet

  • Legal aid changes to give incentives for early resolution of disputes.

Children's Minister Margaret Hodge said it was the quality of contact with children which counted, not the contact in itself.

'Missing the point'

The government plans angered Matt O'Connor, of Fathers 4 Justice.

He told GMTV: "This is a cynical exercise in recycling the existing legislation and presenting it as reform.

"The law has to have teeth. There are tens of thousands of fathers out there who have court orders, who have spent tens of thousands of pounds on orders which are not enforced."

Conservative family spokeswoman Theresa May said ministers were offering warm words and more contact centres instead of quality parenting time.

"Rather than address the real problems at the heart of our family justice system, the minister has attempted to paper over the cracks," said Mrs May.

"This is just another false dawn for all those heartbroken parents and grandparents trapped for years in the courts and denied contact with their children."

Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman Mark Oaten stressed the need for courts to have flexibility.

"The break-up of a family can be devastating for children, but these tragedies can't be made better by rigid quotas or targets on access for parents," he said.

The BBC's Margarent Gilmore
"These are ambitious plans"

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