It’s a very ordinary-looking property on a very ordinary-looking suburban street, although it does have an extremely useful feature for the would-be rooftop protester: a flat roof. Leaves the hands free to brandish protest banners, rather than having to hang on. Otherwise, its particular allure is that it is the home of the Leader of the Opposition Jeremy Corbyn.
So, what has Mr Corbyn done to upset the superhero dads from New Fathers 4 Justice? Well, apparently he refused to talk to them and, crime of crimes, he was “very rude” to one of their members. This heinous act merited a visit from our loveable, if somewhat misguided, protesters.
OK, it’s easy to be facetious about these things, but the protesters are, of course, in deadly earnest. So, let’s have a look at exactly what they are seeking.
Well, it’s nothing new, and it comprises two things: an automatic presumption of equal contact, and the opening of the family courts. Let’s look at each of these in a little more detail.
The group’s website says that it seeks “An automatic presumption of equal contact with the children when the parents split as a starting point.” It claims that this “will give both parents equal parity of rights to see the children. In short, we want dads to have an equal status….same as Mum!!”
As I said, we have been here before. Back in 2011 the Family Justice Review recommended against a legal presumption around shared parenting, taking the view that it could create an impression of a parental ‘right’ to a particular amount of time with a child, which would undermine the central principle of the Children Act 1989 that the welfare of the child is paramount. Notwithstanding this sensible advice, the government bowed to pressure from the fathers’ rights lobby and decided to implement a presumption, albeit in a somewhat watered-down form. What we ended up with was the ‘presumption of parental involvement’, which came into force in October 2014 and says that when a court is considering whether to make an order relating to a child (in particular a child arrangements order) it is to presume, unless the contrary is shown, that involvement of both parents in the life of the child concerned will further the child’s welfare.
I think the general consensus is that the presumption has made little, if any, difference to outcomes in disputes over arrangements for children. Certainly, New Fathers 4 Justice are not satisfied. I’ll not rehearse the arguments for and against equal contact here, save to say that it is of course a matter of what is best for the welfare of the child, not a matter of the rights of the parent. New Fathers 4 Justice are, of course, under the illusion that the law gives mothers more rights than fathers. Of course it does not. The ‘discrimination’ against fathers comes not from the law, but from the implementation of the law. The simple fact is that in many cases the courts consider that the child’s welfare is best served by it spending more time with the mother. No presumption is likely to do much to change this.
Moving on to the issue of open courts, the group says that “This will prevent corruption, bias and implement a culture of accountability with the judiciary.” Hmm…
A quick Google of the word ‘corruption’ comes up with the following definition: “dishonest or fraudulent conduct by those in power, typically involving bribery”. I think that every family judge in the country would take exception to being called ‘corrupt’. Why should they be dishonest or fraudulent? What would they have to gain? Certainly, cases of judges accepting bribes in this country are virtually non-existent. Or can the group provide us with evidence to the contrary? It’s all too easy to use words like ‘corruption’, but the users really should be made to prove their allegations.
As for the issue of bias, I have already dealt with this here. Sorry, but the courts are not biased, either against fathers or mothers.
And finally, there is the issue of accountability. Well, I’m not sure what the group are seeking, but judges are accountable in at least two ways. Firstly, of course, their decisions can be appealed against, and secondly, any judge who fails to carry out their duties in a proper fashion can be subject to disciplinary proceedings which could, ultimately, result in them being removed. How much more accountability do you want?
In short, the group complains that we have an “undemocratic secret court system”. Well yes, I suppose it is undemocratic, in the sense that judges are not elected, as in other countries, but do they want all of our judges to be elected, and to stand for re-election at regular intervals? Such a system would be monstrously expensive, not to say unwieldy. As for the allegation of secrecy, this is a common misconception. As I explained here long ago, they are mistaking ‘secrecy’ with ‘privacy’. For good reasons, family proceedings concerning children are usually conducted in private, although it should be pointed out that whilst the public are not allowed in court, journalists are allowed to sit in court unless the Court decides it would not be appropriate in that particular case, so the system isn’t entirely private either.
Now, don’t get me wrong. The system can fail fathers (and mothers, come to that). I have seen it first-hand. Each time that happens it’s a tragedy, not just for the father but also (more importantly) for the child. I’m not going to complacently say that nothing needs improving, just that the search for answers requires rather more than simplistic and formulaic solutions.