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Marilyn Stowe on BBC Radio 4’s Drive Time

Marilyn Stowe today appeared live on BBC Radio 4 Drive Time programme and BBC Radio York to discuss the key note speech given by The President of the Family Division to Families Needs Fathers on 19th September 2010.

The report of Sir Nicholas Wall’s speech in the Times, heralding ground breaking changes to funding, law, practice and procedure is carried here.

Marilyn Stowe will be posting a blog examining the speech in greater detail this week

Intelligent couples put extra pain into divorce, says judge

Rosemary Bennett
Social Affairs Correspondent

Well-educated parents who wage legal war over their children after separation have been condemned by England’s most senior family court judge.

Separating parents “rarely behave reasonably” and have no idea how much damage they inflict on their children with protracted custody battles and personal attacks on one another, Sir Nicholas Wall said.

Children were routinely used as “the battlefield and ammunition” for parents to hammer out their own personal disputes.

Instead, mothers and fathers should accept separation was “itself a serious failure of parenting” and work out how to minimise the damage, the judge, who is President of the Family Division, said.

The number of couples divorcing has fallen to 136,026 annually, a 30-year-low, but half of them have at least one child aged under 16. Up to 20,000 parents go to court each year to resolve their child access disputes each year.

In his speech, Sir Nicholas singled out middle-class families for particularly serious criticism. He said: “Separating parents rarely behave reasonably, although they always believe that they are doing so, and that the other party is behaving unreasonably.

“People think that post-separation parenting is easy. In fact it is exceedingly difficult, and as a rule of thumb my experience is that the more intelligent the parent, the more intractable the dispute.”

The family courts have witnessed some particularly protracted cases lasting for many years, with contact orders repeatedly broken, often by embittered parents seeking to punish their former partners.

Sir Nicholas said feuds over contact were “rarely about the children concerned”. He added: “Far more often, the parties are fighting over again the battles of the relationship, and the children are both the battlefield, the ammunition. Often the mother, who finds herself caring for the children, is able to use her power over them to deny the father contact.”

Sir Nicholas, who took up his position in April, began his attack in a speech to the Families Need Fathers charity. He was discussing the prospect of significant changes in the way that disputes over children are resolved, expected next year after a review now under way.

More rights for fathers are under serious consideration, with many men far more closely involved in the day-to-day care of their children. Campaigners say that the greater role of fathers is not recognised by the courts when a couple splits up.

But Sir Nicholas warned that even if the law changed to make it fairer, it was far more important that parents act reasonably, do not criticise each other in front of the child and accept that children do best when they have a relationship with both parents.

“There is nothing worse, for most children, than for their parents to denigrate each other. To use the trite phrase, each parent represents 50 per cent of the child’s gene pool. If a child’s mother makes it clear to the child that his or her father is worthless, and vice versa, the child’s sense of self-worth can be irredeemably damaged. Parents simply do not realise the damage they do to their children by the battles they wage over them.”

One of the changes that may emerge from the family law review is a presumption of “shared residence” for the children when a couple separate, where the young people live with either parent for half the time. Family court judges are divided, some thinking it recognises the increasingly important role of fathers, while others believe that it is too disruptive for children.

Sir Nicholas said that such orders were not a panacea, saying that court-imposed solutions “rarely satisfy anybody”. He added: “I remain of the view that the separated parent’s role in the lives of his or her children retains the same degree of importance as when the parents were living together, even if the opportunities to manifest the qualities which an absent parent can bring to his children may be limited.”

He wants to see mediation made a requirement before custody battles come before the family court, saying the adversarial nature of the law was not helpful in these emotionally fraught cases.

Sir Nicholas has already earned a reputation for plain speaking since he took up the post. In one judgment he described social workers as “arrogant and enthusiastic removers of children from their parents” and he has been an outspoken critic of government policies, in particular spending cuts. In the summer he expressed concern that the family court system was “in grave danger of imploding”. Jack Straw, the former Justice Secretary, originally challenged his appointment.

Craig Pickering, the chief executive of Families Need Fathers, said that his contribution to the debate was welcome. He said: “Generally speaking, children do better in every way if they have two parents in their lives, and the children of separated families are no exception.”


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