I knew that things weren’t what they used to be in the family courts, but I have been shocked to discover just how bad it’s become, how loving and caring mothers are being penalised and demonised, and children forced to have contact, or live, with abusive fathers.
I’ve recently come across this group of mothers who are going through the family court – they also have a closed Facebook group, and the stories on there of mothers losing heir children to abusive fathers are heartbreaking.
Here’s what I think has happened over the years to cause the pendulum to swing so wildly from one extreme to the other. If you don’t have time for the history lesson, just scroll down to 2017 and please do sign the petition asking for reform.
1989 The first section of the Children Act states that “the child’s welfare shall be the court’s paramount consideration.” And it used to be, but 1989 now seems a long time ago. At that time it was normal (which is not to say right) that divorced fathers would see their children every Sunday, or every other weekend, have a week or two in the summer holidays, and every other Christmas. Although there was talk of “implacably hostile mothers”, Families Need Fathers was viewed by lawyers as rather radical, and little was done if mothers did not comply with contact orders.
So how did we get from there to shared care, and courts ordering that children should move to live with their fathers when their mothers complain about abuse?
1993 saw a “moral panic” over single mothers, particularly those on benefits; the murder of Jamie Bulger, by two young boys from single-parent families, intensified the media frenzy.
2001 Court Welfare Officers and children’s guardians (Guardians ad litem) were replaced by Cafcass. I didn’t like the sound of it and gave up my practice as a solicitor shortly afterwards! And Cafcass certainly seems to have more power and influence than CWOs did, although in both cases the court would normally follow their recommendations.
2002 Fathers4Justice burst onto the scene, and the rooftops, demanding less secrecy in the family courts, and a starting-point of 50/50 care. Their emphasis was on their right to see their kids, whereas I had always understood that access was the right of the child. The Fathers4Justice protest methods, such as scaling Buckingham palace dressed as Batman, and flour-bombing Tony Blair during Prime Minister’s Question Time, seem to have swayed the courts into giving fathers a lot more of what they ask for, with a lot fewer questions asked.
2003 The Child Support Agency rules changed so that shared care meant a father no longer had to pay maintenance for his children. The tide was turning as men had more motivation and the feeling of support to fight for more time with their children.
Unmarried fathers now had automatic parental responsibility if named on the birth certificate, rather than needing the agreement of the mother or an order from the court.
2004 A mother was jailed for three months after breaching 18 contact orders. This was – and still is – almost unheard of although much shorter sentences have been given occasionally.
2013 April Fool’s Day brought the end of legal aid for family matters. Men are often able to afford legal representation, where women are not, making it harder for mothers to talk about their abuse, and worries for their children.
2014 The Family Law Act introduced the presumption that, unless the contrary is shown, the involvement of each parent in the life of their child will further the child’s welfare. It doesn’t say anything about 50/50 care, although it often seems to be taken that way.
2017 Practice Direction 12J says the court must consider whether the presumption that there should be “contact at all costs” with both parents applies in cases where there has been domestic abuse. Contact should not expose the child and/or their other parent to the risk of harm and should be in the best interests of the child.
It sounds good, but the problem for mothers is proving the abuse in the family court and, even when they have, they are likely to have it dismissed as being “in the past”.
Here’s hoping that the pendulum is beginning to swing again – mothers had their turn, then the fathers, it must surely be time now for the children to be heard and kept safe. I wrote about the murder of Claire Throssell’s sons over two years ago and, sadly, I’m not convinced that much has changed.
Despite Brexit, the government has just promised a draft bill on domestic violence and abuse although an inquiry is needed first. Whether that will change anything in the family courts remains to be seen. One of the problems is that neither Cafcass nor judges have sufficient understanding of abuse, particularly where there is no physical or sexual abuse. Coercive control, narcissistic abuse and other cluster B personality disorders are equally damaging and can also have a dreadful impact on children. But often the abuser is able to turn it around, blame the mother and be given more time with his children, and even sometimes a change of residence.
Another problem is that Fathers4Justice shout louder than anyone else and I suspect that most people still believe that mothers are favoured in court, as they were three or four decades ago. Mothers are starting to fight back and some of them took to the streets last week on International Women’s Day.
Please do share any ideas you may have as to how childrens’ and mothers’ voices can be heard above the posturing of Fathers4Justice, either on my Facebook page or on the comments below. Alternatively, you can send me an email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Please do also share your experiences of Cafcass and the family court so that we can have a better idea of what’s going on, and wrong.
If you’re worried about anything you’ve read here and would like to have a chat, please get in touch to arrange a time to speak. If you’re going through the family court (or have been, or will be) you may want to join this closed Facebook group. I’ll see you there!