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Divorce plan puts children first PDF Print E-mail
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Written by Clare Dyer, legal correspondent   

Fathers' call for automatic 50-50 contact time ruled out

A shake-up of the family justice system in England and Wales to ensure that both parents maintain a "meaningful" relationship with their children after divorce or separation was unveiled by the government yesterday.

The plan, outlined in a consultation paper, aims to tackle disputes over child contact early, before they become intractable. Parents who apply for court orders will be directed to go through in-court conciliation to work out their own parenting plans.

But the government has rejected a demand by some fathers' groups, and adopted by the Conservative party, for a presumption of equal parenting time.

Lord Falconer, the constitutional affairs secretary, said: "There cannot and will not be an automatic presumption of 50-50 contact. Children cannot be divided like the furniture or the CD collection."

Parents will be shown plans which have been found to work. In a typical scenario the child may stay with the father every other weekend plus one weekday night, alternate festive occasions and extended time during school holidays. Parents who want 50-50 time would be free to do so.

The move follows a series of high-profile protests by the militant fathers' group Fathers4Justice, whose members threw a flour bomb at Tony Blair in the House of Commons, and years of lobbying by moderate groups.

Matt O'Connor, founder of Fathers4Justice, said he was "profoundly disappointed" that the government had failed to adopt 50-50 parenting as a starting point and promised that his group's protests would "dramatically escalate".

But Duncan Fisher, director of Fathers Direct, called the green paper "a huge step for many parents who have had to fight for years for a level of contact that this green paper acknowledges as the norm".

Jim Parton, of Families Need Fathers, said: "If they can pull it off, it could make things a lot better."

The role of Cafcass, the children and family court advisory service, would shift from writing reports for the 30,000 contact disputes a year which go to court to supporting access for parents expected to reach out-of-court agreements.

A pilot project in three courts from September will try out more intensive interventions, which will be introduced nationally if it succeeds. The three-stage programme will be piloted in county courts in Sunderland and Brighton, and at Wells Street magistrates court in central London.

The scheme will not be mandatory but parents who apply for court orders will be directed by the judges that they will be expected to take part.

Parents will be shown a video of children discussing their experiences following divorces to show them how divorce affects children.

They will undergo training in conflict management to help them learn skills to make post-divorce parenting less acrimonious. Both parents will come together with a Cafcass officer to work out a parenting plan.

The green paper recognises this is unlikely to produce a once-for-all solution and parents will be given continuing support. If cases need to go to court they will be heard much more quickly than at present and the same judge will deal with a case throughout if possible.

Under the law, judges have two choices in enforcing contact orders - fine the mother or send her to jail - so orders are widely disregarded.

Legislation is promised "as soon as possible" but Lord Falconer said he could not guarantee a bill in the next parliamentary session.

Judges will be able to send parents who defy court orders to classes or counselling sessions or make a community service order requiring them to do voluntary work.

 



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