Note: I ran this at the Guardian yesterday. It’s a topic that some of the regulars here have seemed keen to discuss, so here’s a repost
It appears to be the season for symbolic gestures. Last week Fathers4Justice (F4J) activist Paul Manning was arrested and charged for gluing a photo of a child to Constable’s The Hay Wain in the National Gallery. The incident occurred two weeks after another F4J activistspray-painted over a portrait of the Queen in Westminster Abbey, and three days before a similar attack on a statue in the same cathedral. That act was done in the name of a different group, Stolen Children of the UK, although a F4J activist was also reported to be in attendance.
After Manning’s arrest, F4J put out the daddy of all passive-aggressive statements. It is calling on their supporters to continue independent acts of nonviolent direct action, adding:
“The organisation said it was also now refusing to engage with national media over what it described as deliberately inaccurate and misleading reporting of the campaign and the crisis in the family courts. It was also refusing to deal with the government, police, courts, judiciary and any other organisations involved in family law and said it was considering shutting down all conventional social media.”
This may come as good news to the national media, government, police, courts, judiciary and the nation’s fine art restoration business, but to everyone else it can be little more than a symbolic gesture. F4J has always despised the political and media establishment and the feeling has been mostly mutual. Their speciality was always the symbolic gesture.
If ever an issue required willingness to compromise and negotiate, it is family dispute settlements. The latest F4J gambit portrays them as stubborn, immutable and hostile – not the symbolism intended. I do not question that the men (and women) involved in F4J feel a sincere and burning sense of anger and frustration at their circumstances. They would counter that a willingness to compromise and negotiate gets them nowhere, either politically or personally. However the timing of this particular announcement is intriguing.
This week the children and families bill entered its second reading. The bill offers changes to family court proceedings, including the introduction of a statutory assumption of shared (though not necessarily time-equal) parenting. The proposals are a hotchpotch of ideas, largely ignoring therecommendations of the Norgrove report and pleasing virtually no one. Legal commentators warn that the proposed wording is sufficiently vague to make rulings more complex than ever. F4J has dismissed it as “a feeble cocktail of proposals [and] a charter for conflict and fatherlessness”. One might call it a symbolic gesture.
We need more than gestures on all sides. Family courts rule on the 10% of breakups that present the greatest difficulty. These are, almost by definition, marked by conflicting accounts, bitter allegations and at least one if not two unreasonable parties. Each is usually convinced of their own rectitude and their ex-partner’s wickedness. The adversarial legal system then throws petrol on the flames. Every ruling on the best interests of a child is a best guess and a judgment call, and so subject to assumptions, prejudice and prevailing cultural values. It is not just that we don’t know for sure whether the system is working adequately, it is that it is literally impossible to say objectively whether the system is working adequately in any one case, far less for all 500,000 adults and children entering the system per year.
If the workings of the court are an opaque mess, the political debate around it is often worse. Commentators often quote statistics on initial residency rulings, without acknowledging that most unresolved disputes centre on maintaining the agreed contact – an entirely different issue. The Ministry of Justice’s own research finds that fewer than half of cases that return to court due to non-compliance result in secured contact. Sweeping generalisations are made about “deadbeat dads”; separated fathers are portrayed as probable abusers or, from the other side, innocent victims of terrible injustices. In reality every case is unique and adversarial courts are not only the last resort, they are the worst resort.
Arrangements for shared parenting cannot begin in the family court. They need to begin from the moment of birth. Far more separated fathers maintain satisfactory relationships with their children in Sweden than the UK, and it is not because their courts have a magic formula, it is because fathers are assumed to be equally responsible parents from the word go. We don’t need symbolic gestures. We need a wide-ranging and holistic revolution in parenting, and fatherhood in particular. Without that, the family courts will continue to wrestle with impossible knots, and separated fathers will continue to cry out in anger and frustration.