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January 11th, 2012 by Robert Franklin, Esq.
The United Kingdom’s coalition government has done an about-face and is now aimed at improving children’s rights to a relationship with their father post-divorce.  Read about it here (Daily Mail, 1/6/12).

It was only a matter of a couple of months ago that the recommendations of the Norgrove Commission were met with a firestorm of outrage from advocates for children and fathers.  That’s because, leading up to their release, many commentators, including some insiders, speculated that the Commission would come out in favor of either shared parenting or a requirement of ongoing access by both parents to children after a divorce or separation.  But when the recommendations finally came to light, they urged none of the above.  The refusal even to give children the right to a continuing relationship with their fathers was immediately and angrily denounced across the political spectrum.

Within the coalition government, Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith vowed not to be deterred from asserting children’s and fathers’ rights in the laws of the U.K.  Apparently he’s gotten the agreement of Deputy Prime Minister Nicholas Clegg to toss out the dead-on-arrival Norgrove Report in favor of improving children’s ability to remain connected to their fathers after their parents divorce.

Exactly what the changes would consist of seems unclear at this point.  The linked-to article indicates three possibilities.

Ministers are drawing up new rules to put courts under a legal duty to ensure divorced parents are guaranteed access to their children.

Parents who refuse to accept the orders will be in contempt of court and risk serious penalties or even jail.

That suggests the coalition intends to alter rules under which judges adjudicate custody cases.  On another hand, Children’s Minister Tim Loughton said that all options for promoting shared parenting are open.

Last night children’s minister Tim Loughton said: ‘Our vision is to establish that, under normal circumstances, a child will have a relationship with both his or her parents, regardless of their relationship with each other.

‘We must do everything we can to improve the system so that it gives children the best chance of growing up under the guidance of two loving parents.

‘All the evidence tells us that children genuinely benefit from a relationship with both parents, with the potential to make different contributions to their child’s development.

‘The culture has shifted away from the traditional view that mothers are primarily responsible for the care of children. Increasingly society recognises the valuable and distinct role of both parents.

‘We are looking closely at all the options for promoting shared parenting through possible legislative and non-legislative means.’

I’m not sure what “non-legislative means” refers to.  Maybe it suggests changing the rules under which family court judges decide cases; maybe it means something else.  I guess we’ll find out in due time.

Finally, there’s a bill before Parliament.

Another option would be for the Government to support a backbench bill by Tory MP Charlie Elphicke, which will be debated later this month.

The bill requires courts and councils which are enforcing contact orders for children ‘to operate under the presumption that the rights of a child include growing up knowing and having access to and contact with both parents involved’. 

Whatever comes out of this, it’s good to know that the Norgrove Report has found its rightful place in the dumpster in the alley.  It’s still better to know that the coalition government seems dedicated to doing something to improve children’s relationships with their dads post-divorce.

The devil, as always, is in the details.  What limitations will be placed on children’s rights to their fathers will let us know if the governement is serious or simply trying to buy off fathers and children with words and good intentions.  We’ll see.

What we’ll also see is whether, once the new rules/regulations/laws are in place, family court judges use them in the spirit of keeping fathers and children together, or whether they use the restrictions on children’s rights to separate them as they’ve pretty much always done.

But whatever happens, this is one genie that won’t go back in the bottle.

Thanks to Paul for the heads-up.

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