Education & Family

Warring parents 'play the system' to deny access, minister says

children hugging
Ministers say the changes put the interests of children foremost

Divorced or separated parents who play the system to "freeze" their ex-partner out of a "meaningful relationship" with their children should face tougher penalties, a minister says.

Children's Minister Tim Loughton said too many parents were "sticking two fingers up" to court rulings on access.

He told the Justice Committee children's rights to contact with both parents would be strengthened.

Plans for the family courts in England and Wales have divided opinion.

Family law expert Professor Liz Trinder warned that the changes would make it harder for courts to focus on child welfare.

But campaign group Fathers 4 Justice described the plans as "vacuous".

Under the plans, which have just gone out for public consultation , family courts in England and Wales would have to assume that it was in a child's best interest to see both parents.

Ministers say this would not mean both parents had the right to equal time with their children.

The consultation paper also proposes extending the powers to fine, jail, or require parents to carry out unpaid work, if they refuse to comply with care arrangements.

And it suggests parents who deny their ex-partner access to their children could be banned from travelling abroad, from driving or be made to abide by a curfew.

Children's Minister Tim Loughton told the BBC: "If parents decide to go all the way to the courtroom after they split to decide what happens to the future of their children... it should be made very, very clear, before they go into the courtroom in law, that playing the sort of winner takes all game that many parents have done in the past - where one parent can be completely excluded from the life of that child - is just not going to happen."

Later, he told the Justice Committee that parents have used delays in the system to "freeze out" the other parent, so that by the time judgements on access were being made, contact with the children had been broken.

He wanted tougher penalties for those "who go all the way to court but also stick two fingers up at the judgement".

Ministers say both parents have a responsibility and a role to play in their children's upbringing and the law should recognise that.

'Shallow'

Critics of the proposed changes say they are unnecessary, because judges already take the view that children should have contact with both parents where this is in their best interest.

Prof Trinder, one of the contributors to a government review of access arrangements led by former senior servant David Norgrove, said that in around 99.7% of cases which went to court, judges ruled that both parents should have contact with their children.

In the remaining cases, there were almost always "extremely good reasons" why one parent should not have access, she added.

She said: "The beauty of the Children Act [current legislation governing access], is it is a very clear and simple piece of legislation and it just focuses on what's going to be right for this child, that's the only consideration for the court. Once you start adding in other principles, then you're diminishing that focus."

'Missing out'

Nick Woodall, from the Centre for Separated Families, welcomed the government's proposals.

"There is a problem in that far too many children are missing out on those vital relationships with both parents after separation," he said.

"The children who fare best and adjust the most easily to life after separation are those who are able to maintain meaningful relationships with both of their parents."

But the campaign group Fathers 4 Justice said the proposals did not go far enough and fathers had been insulted by the government's failure to ensure they had the same rights as mothers to see their children.

Nadine O'Connor from the group said: "There have been 10 years of consultations and the only thing that has been changed in that time is the courtroom furniture.

"These shallow, vacuous proposals are the cruellest type of political deceit, as they are deliberately designed to kick this issue into the long grass for another generation."

The Norgrove review of the family justice system, published last year, rejected the need for any legal enshrining of the rights of children to maintain contact with both parents, saying it risked "confusion, misinterpretation and false expectations".

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