Like, I suspect, many people of, shall we say, maturing years, I have long-since learned to take the utterances of politicians with a pinch of salt. However, there are times when one must respond to their more absurd pronouncements.
One such occasion arises when a member of Her Majesty’s governing party suggests that the family justice system is biased in favour of women. In a speech to the ‘International Conference on Men’s Issues’ Conservative MP for Shipley in West Yorkshire Philip Davies said that women were treated more favourably in the family courts and that:
“Many women use their children as a stick to beat the father with, either because they’re bitter about the failed relationship, for financial reasons, or because they’ve moved on and it’s easier for them if their new partner takes on the role of father to their children.”
Now, before I go any further I must admit that much of what I am about to say I have said here before. However, it seems that the message needs repeating.
I also have to confess that I have not watched Mr Davies’ entire speech (it is available on YouTube). I did start watching it, but I lost the will to live after the first couple of minutes. Still, I have read reliable reports of what he said in relation to his view that the family justice system is biased in favour of women.
Of course, he is entirely wrong. The law is perfectly even-handed. The Children Act, for example, says nothing whatsoever about favouring mothers over fathers.
Now I not saying that it is not the case that courts more often grant ‘custody’ (to use Mr Davies’ outdated term) of children to mothers than it does to fathers. However, this is merely reflecting the way our society is. In our society mothers are still more often child carers, they are more often in a better practical position to look after the children (with fathers still more often being the primary breadwinners) and, yes, society as a whole does favour the concept of mothers rather than fathers as child carers. If you were to ask a random sample of people in this country who they thought was better able to bring up children I’m sure substantially more would say mothers than fathers. Like it or not, that is how it is.
In short, the system reflects society. And this, surely, is just as it should be. It is not the job of the family justice system, or the courts, to change society. On the other hand, if society changes, then the justice system should change to reflect that. And this is just what we have seen over the years. Not so long ago the system very definitely favoured husbands, but thankfully we now live in more enlightened times. And the courts themselves respond to society’s changes – just look at some of the financial remedy cases from the last forty years and see how things have changed.
As for Mr Davies’ specific allegation that some mothers use their children as a ‘stick to beat the father with’, yes this does happen, but how is this the fault of the family justice system?
In any event, whilst it is quite common for a mother to try to ‘shut out’ a father in a contact dispute, in the majority of such cases that is not solely motivated by a desire to hurt the father – the mother genuinely, albeit usually mistakenly, believes that that is what is best for the child. The job of the court then is of course to get to the truth of the matter.
However, even if the court does get to the truth it can still have serious problems to deal with if the mother does not acknowledge her error. Forcing contact when the ‘custodial’ parent is vehemently against it is no easy matter. Of course, a change of residence from mother to father is an option, but very often this is either not a practical possibility, or it is clearly not the best thing to do for the child’s welfare. The outcome, therefore, can often give the false impression of bias.
There is, of course, nothing unusual about one of our representatives getting things so wrong. However, if one does not respond then bad ideas can gain traction, leading to bad reform of the law, for example putting rights of fathers ahead of welfare of children. In any event, if you think fathers are wronged, then you have the wrong target: you should be seeking to change society, not the law.
If you really are at a loss for something to do, you can watch Mr Davies’ speech here.