Should you be unfortunate enough to come before the family courts from today onward, you’ll find yourself subject to the presumption of shared parenting. This comes under the Parental Involvement provision in Section 11 of the Children and Families Act 2014 which has been loudly trumpeted by Coalition ministers.
Simon Hughes and Edward Timpson say these are ‘bold reforms so that the welfare of children is at the heart of the family justice system, and there can be no doubt that parents play a very important role in every child’s life” and “a brand new system which puts the needs of children first, protects families from harmful and stressful battles in the courtroom and gives them greater support”.
This all sounds so eminently sensible that it’s a wonder nobody has thought of it before. Except that they have.
Now I rarely venture into the world of law because I’m not a lawyer. But even I know that the whole point of The Childrens Act 1989 is that the ‘child’s welfare shall be the court’s paramount consideration’. The second section of the act is pretty clear that both parents can and should have parental responsibility, whether married or unmarried at the time of the child’s birth.
I’ve also spoken to legal friends who deal in family law and they tell me the courts have been making this presumption of shared parenting for years. Others confirm this. There’s no doubt that the influence of both mother and father are independently valuable to a child. That’s why a barrister friend of mine – and I’m sure most others do this – makes a point of establishing immediate access before he leaves court from the initial hearing. Otherwise he knows from bitter experience that an intransigent resident parent can prevent access until the next hearing weeks later. Those few weeks can be long enough to manipulate or coach the child to think and say things against the non-resident parent. This is the kind of wise and compassionate approach that comes not from law but from being a decent human being.
So what has changed? The new law is putting in print that both parents should have a relationship with the child. It’s a thoroughly laudable aim that is supported by research. But it’s also already enacted by practitioners, such as my friend.
Ultimately it’s trying to solve an intractable problem. It’s trying to ensure an intransigent resident parent doesn’t shut out the non-resident parent. And it’s trying to put pressure on an unwilling or distant non-resident parent to get involved. But is a new law going to make the blindest bit of difference to the parents in these situations or even to be enforceable? No. We’re not about to throw stroppy mothers in jail. Nor are we about to punish useless fathers for being a rubbish parent.
So much of this is about attitude. And you change attitudes through information, encouragement, cajoling, enthusiasm, persuasion, and basic love for our neighbour and their well-being. That’s what we are about at Marriage Foundation, for example. Just as you can’t order everybody to get married and expect them to become instantly committed and marriageable and wonderful, you can’t order parents to be involved and expect them to seize the day with great vim and vigour!
These are fine sentiments in a law that changes little. That’s why this looks like pure political grandstanding.