These days I am generally not in the habit of reading comments upon my posts here. However, the other day I was persuaded to read a comment made on my post last Thursday concerning the case P v C & Others, in which Ms Justice Russell ordered that the children continue to reside with the mother, despite previously finding that the mother had emotionally abused them.
The commenter Paul Apreda, a Trustee of the fathers’ rights charity Families Need Fathers, and also an occasional contributor to this blog, said that the post was: “An all too familiar story of the failure of the Family Justice system to act swiftly enough or with sufficient determination to resolve intractable contact disputes.” He recalled a conversation he had had with Sir James Munby, the President of the Family Division, in which he recounted the experience of a new attendee father at a support meeting:
“This man was in the process of splitting up from the mother of his children and had come along at the earliest stage to learn more about what might happen and how best to manage the process. He listened to the others at the meeting recount their experiences and progress of their disputes over child contact. When it came time for him to speak he said ‘So from what I’ve heard the only way for me to ensure that I remain in the lives of my children is to grab the kids, make allegations against my ex and refuse to negotiate.’ ”
Paul admitted to Sir James that he “had struggled to come up with a convincing argument against that approach as we all knew how effective it was”, and asked the President what advice he would give to respond to such a question in future. Unsurprisingly, Sir James said that he hoped that Paul would NOT encourage that sort of behaviour. Paul said he assured Sir James that he would not, but “couldn’t help feeling that we all knew that such behaviour was the most effective for men to ensure they are not excluded from the lives of their children.”
So, what are my thoughts on the matter?
Well, I can understand why some fathers feel that such behaviour may be their best approach, but I am fully with Sir James on this one, as I’m sure are all family lawyers, and indeed every professional involved in the family justice system.
There are many reasons why such an approach is wrong, not least because it is likely to backfire, as the court is likely to see through it and then take an extremely dim view of the father’s actions.
In fact, I could write at great length explaining all of the reasons why such an approach is a terrible idea. However, I really don’t think I need to say more than this: such an approach misses the point by a country mile. The point in any children dispute should be well known to all involved in such disputes, and that includes litigants without legal representation. It is absolutely fundamental, and there is no excuse for not knowing it: in a dispute about children, the single most important issue is their welfare. Everything revolves around what is best for the child’s welfare. The ‘rights’ of the parent, if they can be called that, are entirely secondary to the welfare of the child.
Behaviour like that suggested by the father at the meeting is all about the parent, and what selfish steps they might take to ensure that they get their way. The damage caused to the child by one parent snatching the child, making false allegations against the other parent and then refusing to negotiate can be immeasurable, and can stay with the child into its adult life (often with the child ultimately turning against that parent). Any parent engaged in such behaviour has completely missed the point.
Now, having said that every parent must understand that the welfare of the child is paramount, I do realise that for some parents it can be very difficult to work out what is best for the child’s welfare. Surely, their welfare will not be best served if they do not have an on-going full relationship with them, due to the actions of the other parent? Well, yes, it is absolutely true that in the vast majority of cases the welfare of the child dictates that they should continue to have as full a relationship as possible with both of their parents. But behaviour like that suggested above, even if it is in response to the alienating actions of the other parent, is simply replacing one ‘crime’ with another, with very similar damaging effects upon the child.
It is trite to say it these days, but we need to move away from this idea that a dispute over arrangements for a child is a battle between the parents, with one parent becoming the winner and the other the loser. The parent who succeeds in ‘getting’ the child through subversive behaviour, whether it be the mother alienating the child against the father, or the father snatching the child as suggested above, is only working for their own selfish ends, not the best interests of the child.
And I can already hear a chorus of fathers saying: what, then, do you propose we do when the mother is alienating our kids against us? The only answer can be that you use the family justice system (including negotiation and mediation). It is certainly not perfect, and it is even more difficult to navigate now for all of those fathers who can’t afford a lawyer, but it’s all we’ve got. Contrary to what you may hear elsewhere, it does work for the vast majority of fathers, and where it doesn’t work we must all strive to improve it.