Following on from the report "Outcomes of applications to court for contact orders after parental separation or divorce", which I mentioned in this post, Frances Gibb of The Times has written a piece on reactions to the report, particularly from fathers. Unsurprisingly, she says that fathers are 'furious' at the findings of the report, particularly that courts are not biased in favour of residential parents. Also unsurprisingly, given the recent stance of The Times towards the family justice system, Gibb sides with the fathers, saying that the conclusions to the report "conceal key failings with the present system that give credence to the pain and anger felt by parents who cannot amicably agree contact arrangements over their child or children". She gives three reasons: firstly that fathers resent having to go to court in the first place to obtain what they feel should be their right; secondly contact orders may be made, but that contact may be "derisory", and thirdly courts still remain effectively powerless to ensure contact orders are complied with. I'll deal with each of these in turn.
I don't particularly like talking in terms of a parent's right to contact, but rather in terms of the child's right to have a meaningful relationship with both parents. Having said that, I agree with Gibb that we need to get away from the culture of the residential parent being able to dictate terms to the other parent. Gibb mentions the proposal that there should be a legal presumption of equal contact - something that I have indicated my agreement with here on a number of occasions. Once such a presumption became common knowledge it could change that culture, and reduce the need for many fathers to have to go to court.
Is contact often "derisory"? I agree that equal time spent with both parents is a rarity, but this is often for practical reasons, such as job commitments and distance. Gibb mentions a father who only sees his daughter every other weekend and considers this to be derisory, but such a contact arrangement is not at all unusual with a school age child, as it ensures that the child spends one weekend in two with each parent, and it is often not practical for there to be any midweek contact.
As to the courts being powerless to enforce contact orders, this has long been recognised and, as Gibb mentions, the courts will be given further powers this autumn, when the new contact enforcement provisions of the Children and Adoption Act 2006 come into effect. I fully accept that those provisions will not be a panacea to cure all ills, as I've stated before, but they will at least put more tools at the disposal of the court, and I think we should see how well they work before passing judgement.
(As has Gibb, I have used the word 'father' in this post to mean 'non-residential parent'.)
[Thanks to Current Awareness for drawing my attention to this article.]