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July 3, 2020 by Robert Franklin, JD, Member, National Board of Directors

Is Greece poised to make a great leap forward toward parental equality in family courts?  This article says it may be; I’m less confident (Open Democracy, 6/29/20).

It seems the current government has put forward a bill that would significantly overhaul current law relating to child custody, child support and parenting time.  That may be a good thing.  The linked-to article’s writer, Vassillis K. Fouskas, is a professor of international politics and economics at the University of East London.  He identifies three major defects in current Greek family law.

“First, middle and lower-middle class fathers who dared to enter litigation demanding shared parenting/joint custody risked losing their child(ren) at the same time that they were asked to pay enormous amounts of money in child maintenance.”

As I understand it, Greece has no clear system for ordering child support, such as the guidelines that govern in most parts of this country, so each judge simply makes it up as he/she sees fit.  That can mean lower-earning fathers can end up with ruinous support orders.

The second observable flaw of the current family law system is the social practice of residential/non-residential parenthood and its detrimental side-effects on children and fathers.

Apparently, some 98% of custodial parents are mothers.  Non-resident fathers have almost no time with their kids.  Why?

“[A] “judges code” was created assigning custody to mothers only and visitation rights to fathers – usually once or twice a week for 3-4 hours and only during the day. Overnight stay with the father once a week was and remains exceptional.”

Plus, high levels of child support urge mothers to “weaponize” children against fathers.  In what will be familiar to fathers everywhere, Greek law supplies stringent enforcement mechanisms for child support obligations and none whatever for access orders.  Even the meager time accorded fathers isn’t backed up by any enforcement power, leaving mothers free to ignore those orders as they choose.

Finally, move-away orders seem to be handed out by judges like candy on Halloween.  Mothers who wish to vacate the jurisdiction in which the father lives are seldom prevented from doing so.  That’s true despite the fact that many mothers aren’t Greeks.  They’ve travelled there from foreign countries, married Greek men, had children, divorced and then decided they need to return to their former country.  And of course take the kids with them.

Family lawyers love problem Number 3 because the proceedings in those cases are long and drawn out and therefore generate hefty legal fees.

This is one of the most costly and protracted legal processes that induce couples to litigate endlessly over the custody of the children, in addition to the allocation of assets, child maintenance and so on. It can last for many months and even years.

But however much money Dad spends on trying to keep his children near enough so that he can see them regularly, he seldom prevails.

The residential parent usually wins, and the winner gets it all, whereas the non-residential parent becomes a “skype parent”, entitled to some obscure visitation rights…  [T]he Court Order assumes that the father, after this protracted battle, has funds to spend on visiting his children during Christmas, Easter and Summer holidays: to pay hotels and other costs, and to entertain the children.

In short, the status quo in Greece is only somewhat different from that in every English-speaking country.  It’s a difference of degree, not of kind. 

Fouskas likes the government’s new bill, but tells precious little about it.

The new family law bill that the Greek right is poised to institute this coming autumn will eradicate all three major pathologies analysed above, benefiting, first and foremost, children. In particular, it has the potential to fight the commodification of family relations and extravagances of the legal profession, especially if welfare support in poor families strengthens.

It relieves both parents financially from very large (and onerous) legal fees and avoids a practice that tends to alienate children further, especially from the non-residential parent.

I’m glad he’s optimistic, but I wonder if it’s warranted.  After all, a law is just a law and, as we’ve seen before, laws often fail to alter judges’ behavior.  And given the well-established pro-mother bias of family court judges, why should we expect a new law in Greece to fare any better than they do elsewhere.  Indeed, Fouskas points out that much the same thing occurred previously in Greece.

[Panhellenic Socialist Movement’s] courageous reform of 1982-83, established gender equality and threw into the dustbin of history women’s discrimination at all levels. However, with the passage of time, problems cropped up with the implementation of the law, as judges, influenced by the dominant sexist culture – according to which fathers were seen as unfit to look after their children – were overwhelmingly assigning custody to mothers only. For a mother to lose custody in Greek Courts meant that she had either to be proved to be a “sex worker” or a “drug addict”.

Fouskas may or may not be aware of it, but the above quotation describes exactly the concern I have.  Greek law changed in 1982-83 and “established gender equality.”  But biased judges ignored gender equality in parenting to give primary custody to mothers 98% of the time.

It happened then, it can happen now.  I suppose we’ll see.

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