Children to get access rights to both parents

Generic image of boy reading book Ministers say the changes put the interests of children foremost

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Children are to get legal rights to maintain relationships with both parents after separation, as part of a shake-up of the family justice system.

New rules will make clear that contact with both mothers and fathers is vital, the Department for Education said.

But ministers are likely to disappoint fathers' rights groups by ruling out a legal guarantee of equal access.

Campaigners say the UK fails to uphold a UN convention setting out children's rights to maintain relationships.

A review led by former senior civil servant David Norgrove last year rejected the need for any legal statement of rights, saying it risked "confusion, misinterpretation and false expectations".

But Children's Minister Tim Loughton said it was the state's duty to ensure decent, loving fathers were not "pushed out" of their offspring's lives.

"The state cannot create happy families, or broker amicable break-ups.

'Losing meaningful contact'

"But if children are having decent, loving parents pushed out of their lives, we owe it to them to change the system that lets this happen."

Mr Loughton said there was a familiar picture, involving hundreds of thousands of children "losing meaningful contact with the non-resident parent, usually the father".

In its formal response to the report, to be published on Monday, the government will pledge an extra £10m for mediation services in a bid to reduce the number of cases going to law.

  • 1.9 million lone parents with dependent children in the UK
  • In 2011, women accounted for 92% of lone parents
  • One million lone parents have one child
  • 621,000 single parents have two children
  • 238,000 lone parents have more than two children

*Source: ONS

When disputes are settled in court - presently around one in 10 - it will promise to find ways to ensure no parent is excluded unless they pose a safety or welfare risk.

A working group will examine potential changes to the Children's Act 1989 to embed the rights.

In 2011, men accounted for just 8% of the UK's lone parents.

Matt O'Connor, founder of the campaign group Fathers 4 Justice, welcomed the shake-up of the family justice system.

He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "If you look at the evidence in this country, 200 children lose contact with their fathers every single day in a family court. We have one in three children growing up without a father; that's nearly four million children without a dad.

"This is one small step on the journey of equality, we welcome it, but we'd like to see wholesale reform of the entire system of family law, including child support."

Matthew, father-of-one

I believe that we should enshrine the equal importance of both parents in law because children need the input of both parents, where possible, to ensure maximum emotional stability and happiness in later life.

At the moment it is extremely easy for the resident parent to restrict contact between the child and the non-resident parent, as I have found through my experiences, and the current system is extremely slow at rectifying this.

Whilst I welcome the additional funds for mediation, in my experience this only works if both parties are aiming to achieve roughly similar things - it irons out the wrinkles. If either parent is simply unwilling to compromise, then mediation cannot work. It is especially difficult to get it to work if the resident parent simply wants to write the non-resident parent out of the child's life.

Without parallel court proceedings to enshrine any agreement in an order of the court, there is no legally binding outcome from mediation at all.

I would welcome a system whereby there is an agency outside of the court system with the authority to ensure contact between children and non-resident parents goes ahead as ordered. As it stands, if a resident parent breaks a court order for contact, they are likely to get a slap on the wrist and not a lot else.

And Ken Sanderson, of Families Need Fathers, said a move to introduce legislation enshrining a child's rights to an ongoing relationship with both parents "would be a victory for children".

"For too long, we have seen children of many separating couples across the country lose out on the emotional and social benefits of a loving relationship with both parents following separation and divorce, and we are delighted that the government intends to address this situation," he said.

"This is not a question of fathers' or mothers' rights; it is about protecting the rights of children to have two loving parents fully involved in their lives wherever possible, to the benefit of the children, their families, and wider society," he added.

While groups such as Fathers 4 Justice have demanded equal access, Mr Loughton said the concept of "shared parenting" was too often confused with the idea of children spending equal time with each parent.

Evidence from Australia suggested this was impractical, leading to longer delays in resolving disputes, which was "manifestly not in the best interests of the child", he said.

"The most important thing remains the principle that the child's welfare is the paramount consideration and this must not be diluted.

Mr Norgrove's rejection of equal access rights attracted criticism from campaigners including Ken Sanderson, of the Families Need Fathers group.

Mr Norgrove's proposals would only adjust a "fundamentally broken system", he said at the time.

"The core failing of the current family justice system is that the rights of children to maintain meaningful relationships with both parents, as set out in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, are not adequately supported or enforced."

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