THE 36,000 FAMILIES SILENCED BY PARLIAMENT

The following is my letter to the Justice Committee on 21st November 2012. In it I outline why Fathers4Justice should have proper and meaningful representation at Parliamentary hearings including the pre-legislative scrutiny of the Children and Families Bill held this week. To deny 36,000 families a voice is an affront to democracy and robs the committee of any legitimacy.

Wednesday 21ST November 2012

Mr Nick Walker
Clerk, Justice Committee
House of Commons
London
SW1P 3JA
Email: justicecom@parliament.uk

SUBMISSION REF PRE-LEGISLATIVE SCRUTINY OF THE CHILDREN AND FAMILIES BILL

Attached: Our Blueprint for Family Law in the 21st Century

Dear Nick,

Thank you for your letter of 20th November 2012.

We approached Steve Brine MP who sits on the committee to ask that we could specifically give oral testimony direct to the committee, not make more written submissions that have easily been disregarded in the past. Further, we do not want to comment simply on the matter of the Bill before the committee, but to address fundamental and serious failings of the Family Justice system which are not covered by the Bill.

Let me set out the position of Fathers4Justice for the committee.

  1. We represent 36,000 registered families and are the world’s largest equal parenting group.
  2. On current projections, in 2014 we will have a larger membership base than the Liberal Democrats.
  3. Despite this, Fathers4Justice have been denied any representation on any government group or working party looking at family law reform since our inception in 2001. It is unthinkable that such an overwhelming constituency of people could be denied representation if they belonged to any other group in society.
  4. A Ministerial Working Party set up to consider these reforms was neither gender balanced or representative. It comprised of nine women and just two men.
  5. It should be a prerequisite for the committee to hear the testimonies of the people we represent given we are the largest group. Token submissions are insufficient.
  6. Historically F4J has repeatedly been denied the opportunity to give any oral testimony to MP’s.
  7. In 2004 when the Parliamentary Select Committee on Family Law were considering the matter, Sir Alan Beith (the chairman of this committee), refused to give Fathers4Justice the opportunity to give oral testimony on this matter.
  8. Sir Bob Geldof also refused to participate at that hearing. He said that if we were not invited to give oral testimony, the committee could command no respect or legitimacy as it was denying a voice to the largest constituency of parents affected by decisions made in secret family courts.
  9. In 2008, we ceased direct action and negotiated a series of pre-election commitments from the Conservative Party, one of which was to introduce a legal presumption to shared parenting. These commitments have been broken.
  10. The Conservative Party went so far as to promise that within a week of being elected they would hit the ground running on family law reform and Fathers4Justice would be a major contributor to these reforms.
  11. With regard to previous submissions, our principles are widely known and publicised.
  12. In 2011, every Member of Parliament was emailed a copy of our ‘Blueprint for Family Law in the 21st Century’ which set out our position. I attach a copy here.
  13. In 2011 we submitted a 1200 page forensic analysis of the failings of the Family Justice system to the Norgrove enquiry which was totally disregarded. Norgrove concluded that the operations of the family courts were generally acceptable and that not only did fathers have no rights, but that they deserved no rights.
  14. We have repeatedly raised extremely serious allegations of systemic child abuse within the family court system which have never been investigated. These have included the smashing down of a child’s bedroom door by court tipstaff so a child could be removed from the father and taken to live with his mother and the case of a Contact Centre Manager who was found to have been sleeping with one of the children in her centre and grooming other children in her care. The case was covered up by CAFCASS and only came to light because of the valiant efforts of the girl’s father. Yet neither of these, or thirty other serious abuse allegations submitted by Fathers4Justice have been investigated by the authorities.

Instead of engaging with Fathers4Justice, MP’s have consistently treated us like a modern day IRA and as political pariahs without any grounds for doing so given we ceased direct action in 2008. As a result 36,000 families have been systematically excluded from the democratic process for the last decade. They have been denied any voice (let alone a representative share of voice) on an issue which touches virtually every family in our country and is impacting upon our children, our society and our economy.

Making token submissions that give legitimacy to an illegitimate process – for that is what we believe a submission without oral testimony is – does not constitute proper or appropriate representation in our democracy.

OUR POSITION ON THE CHILDREN AND FAMILIES BILL
The Children and Families Bill is little more than an exercise in creating the illusion of change, without changing anything. To underline how discriminatory the Bill is, it barely mentions the word ‘f’ word (father) once, even though the legislation is (supposedly) about addressing the issue of fathers denied access to their children. Not only have fathers been written out of the democratic process, we have been written out of a bill which is allegedly there to support us.
We rejected the proposals for the following reasons:

  1. After 10 years of campaigning, fathers have been deemed so unimportant to children to even merit a single line in a statute assuring their full participation in the lives of their children post-divorce or separation.
  2. The government says there cannot be a presumption of any kind in law without incurring unacceptable risk of damage to children. Yet that presumption already exists – an unwritten yet automatic presumption in favour of mothers.
  3. A ‘meaningful relationship’ is not defined and presents the opportunity for further litigation.
  4. The Bill is a ‘McDad’s’ Charter. It does not recognise fathers in law, fails to support equal parenting in law and will only serve to change the language of injustice – not the injustice itself.
  5. To turn the Bill on it’s head, how can any reasonable, right-minded person argue that over 90% of fathers are unfit to share in the parenting of their children?
  6. Worst still, in an act of appalling discrimination, it introduces a dangerous new presumption ‘where it is safe and in the child’s best interests to do so’. This implies that every father is an inherent risk to their children. Whilst the language itself is not discriminatory, its application will be – it will only apply to fathers in the vast majority of cases.
  7. There is no commitment to reform the family justice system, end secret courts and replace them with an open, transparent and accountable system of justice. The Bill places blind trust in the very people (the judiciary) who have repeatedly failed our children and are responsible directly through their court orders for the current crisis.
  8. The proposals breach the Conservative Party’s pre-election promises made to Fathers4Justice in 2012 and are significantly less than those proposed by the Conservative Party in response to the Green Paper of 2004.
  9. When these proposals are combined with the removal of legal aid and a massive uplift in the number of self represented cases in 2013, they will create a perfect storm of prejudice, secrecy and failure which will see increasing numbers of children lose contact with their fathers.
  10. Finally, these proposals mean nothing if court orders are not enforced. Up to 50% of court orders for contact are broken, normally by mothers. How can any draft proposal be taken seriously when it allows one group of parents to repeatedly break the law with impunity? How can we have one law for mothers and another for fathers?

If the Justice Committee truly wants to do the right thing by children and families in our country, it must give a voice to the disenfranchised and address the institutional bias against fathers. Whilst the law itself might not discriminate explicitly, the evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates that the application of the law does. We cannot continue the pretence that this is not this not the case. A nation of first-class fathers are being treated as second-class parents in our secret courts.

SETTING THE CHILDREN AND FAMILIES BILL IN CONTEXT
To explain why we cannot contribute further to commenting on the Children and Families Bill, we have to set the Bill in context against overwhelming and compelling evidence that unequivocally demonstrates it’s failure to understand the key issues and facts relating to family breakdown and mass fatherlessness. These are as follows:

BRITAIN IN BREAKDOWN – DENIED A RIGHT TO FAMILY LIFE
Our rights as parents to family life have been repeatedly beached in the UK courts. The role of government should be to protect families. Instead it has been instrumental in breaking them up.

  1. Article 16, Universal Declaration of Human Rights. (1) Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.  (2) Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses. (3) The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.
  2. Article 8, European Convention on Human Rights. Right to respect for private and family life. Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence.

BRITAIN IN BREAKDOWN – A NATION OF SECOND CLASS PARENTS

  1. The 1989 Children Act abolished “The rule of law that a father is the natural guardian of his legitimate child” and replaced the “archaic” concept of guardianship with a loosely defined collection of rights under “parental responsibility”.  PR was awarded automatically to mothers, but fathers only acquired it dependent on their relationship with the mother.
  2. Fathers have no legal right in law to see their children.
  3. Fathers only have a right to apply to a court to see their children after separation.
  4. Fathers have been denied a legal presumption to ‘shared’ or ‘equal’ parenting which would ensure they would be guaranteed the same rights as mothers.
  5. A father’s only legal responsibility is to provide financial support for their children, not emotional.

BRITAIN IN BREAKDOWN – A FATHERLESS BRITAIN
The basic numbers that underline the cumulative effect of consecutive government policies towards fathers.

  1. Britain has the highest proportion of fatherless families of any major European country. (ONS)
  2. 1 in 3 children live without their father. (ONS).
  3. 92% of single parents are single mothers. (CSJ)
  4. 1 in 3 children lose contact with their father permanently. (CSJ).
  5. 3.8 million are living ‘at the mercy of family courts’. (Sir Paul Coleridge, Daily Mail, 14/7/11).

BRITAIN IN BREAKDOWN – THE ECONOMIC COST
The cost of mass fatherlessness and the ensuing social consequences are catastrophic for our country socially and economically.

  1. Economic Cost of Family Breakdown: £44 billion a year. This is more than the annual defence budget for the UK. (The Marriage Foundation).
  2. In 2004, the Family Justice System cost the taxpayer £435 million.
  3. In 2011, the Family Justice System cost the taxpayer £800 million.

THE FAMILY COURTS IN BREAKDOWN
The public can have no confidence whatsoever in the operations of secret family courts which are above scrutiny and transparency. Because the courts keep no records on the outcomes for children, no independent figures are available in many instances.

  1. 50% of all Contact Orders are broken and are not enforced. (The Times, 2003)
  2. F4J estimates that 200 Children a day lose contact with their fathers in the family courts.
  3. Other sources suggest 40% of children will lose contact their fathers within 2 years (Bradshaw & Millar, 1991) to 60% overall (Butler-Sloss, 2003).
  4. Since 1989, no records have been kept on the outcomes for children to prove the courts have acted in the ‘Child’s Best Interests’.
  5. If, as the courts claim, the rights of the child were paramount, then they would have kept records on the outcomes for the children to understand whether their best interests were being served by the court process.
  6. In 2003 a Parliamentary Inquiry said this on the issue of court records, “In the absence of data, the identification of what might be best for any particular child in any particular case is fraught with difficulty”.
  7. “Every child has thereby become ‘the subject of an uncontrolled experiment”. Mike Stein, Co-director of the Social Work Research and Development Unit at the University of York.
  8. Expert witnesses have been discredited further undermining the authority of the courts. On 13th March 2012, a Channel 4 News investigation found that 1 in 5 ‘expert’ witnesses had no qualifications in their field. 65% of reports were rated poor or very poor. 90% of the experts were not in current practice.

CHILD SUPPORT: HOW A NATION OF FATHERS HAVE BEEN REDUCED TO THE STATUS OF CASHPOINTS
Fathers4Justice believes child support should mean emotional and financial support of our children. However, consecutive governments have continued to portray fathers as ‘feckless’ or ‘deadbeats’ and reduced them to the status of cashpoints. The reality is that without equal rights and responsibilities for fathers, the child support system is doomed to failure. As the law stands today, a father can abandon his children tomorrow, provided he pays.

  1. 95.1% of ‘absent’ parents are fathers (Including those with shared parenting arrangements). (CSA).
  2. There is no division of benefits for fathers who share the care of their children.
  3. 73% of fathers comply with child support commitments. (CSA).
  4. 63% of fathers who don’t pay are unemployed or on income support. (CSA).
  5. Only 15% of fathers who don’t pay, have a clear ability to pay. (CSA).

BRITAIN’S DICKENSIAN LEGACY: A HISTORY OF FAILING CHILDREN
Our government, children services and family justice system have a history of failing our most vulnerable. From Victoria Climbie to Baby Peter Connolly whose father was denied access to him on the basis of false allegations, the Dickensian treatment of children continues unchecked. Child welfare professionals claim to ‘act in the child’s best interests’ despite having kept no records on the outcome for the children they have been responsible for. The result has been an explosion in anti-social behaviour, gang culture and children having children on the streets of our country.

  1. Britain has the highest rate of young offending Western Europe. (Mori/Youth Justice Board, 2002).
  2. The cost of youth offending is £13 billion every year. (Home Office, 2000).
  3. Britain jails more children than any other country in Western Europe.
  4. 1 in 4 teenagers have a criminal record. (ONS)
  5. UK accused of ‘failing children’ as it came bottom of a league for child well-being across 21 industrialised countries. (UNICEF 2007).

PUBLIC SUPPORT FOR THE POSITION OF FATHERS4JUSTICE
Fathers4Justice enjoys significant public support for its position.

  1. 84% of the public believe that both parents should have equal rights over the custody of their children. YouGov Poll 13th June 2012.
  2. A poll conducted for the Conservative Party in 2011 found that Fathers4Justice was the third highest supported campaign group in the UK on 63% public support behind Amnesty International on 68% and Greenpeace on 69%.
  3. 83 per cent of the British public thinks family breakdown is a serious problem; over a third thinks it is very serious. (CSJ)
  4. 75 per cent believes that stabilising Britain’s most troubled families would help society as a whole. (CSJ)
  5. 75 per cent thinks fatherlessness is a serious problem, almost a third thinks it is very serious. (CSJ)

OUR BLUEPRINT FOR FAMILY LAW
In 2004 Fathers4Justice published it’s Blueprint for Family Law in the 21st Century based around a Bill of Rights for the Family and radical reform of the entire family justice system commencing with the launch of a Public Enquiry headed by Sir Bob Geldof. The family justice system is predicated on maximum conflict and minimum resolution. Courts are for criminals, not families, yet there remains astonishing resistance to any change of the system for the benefit of families and most importantly children. The key principles of our Blueprint are as follows:

  1. A Bill of Rights for the Family including a legal presumption to contact (parenting time) between children and both parents. The burden of proof should be on the state to deny children access to their parents, not the reverse. We believe this single legislative change would end 80% of all litigation overnight.
  2. A right in law for grandparents to see their grandchildren.
  3. A legal presumption of ‘shared’ or ‘equal’ parenting. We must end the ‘winner takes all’ mentality of the justice system.
  4. The enforcement of courts orders, including the transfer of residency from a recalcitrant parent. Parents who deny contact should not be able to act with impunity.
  5. Mandatory mediation and early interventions.
  6. Removal of family disputes from the court process to be replaced by an open, transparent and accountable system of justice predicated on peaceful resolution, not conflict and delay. Courts are for criminals, not families.
  7. Replacing an unelected, unaccountable and unsackable judiciary with a Family Magistrates Bench who make decisions within the framework of the new Bill of Rights for the Family.
  8. Begin a record keeping system on the outcomes for children.
  9. Reform Child Support legislation to embrace emotional and financial support and ensure benefits and parenting time are linked and benefits divided equally to both parents.
  10. Launch an immediate Public Enquiry into the Family Justice system headed by Sir Bob Geldof to re-establish public confidence in the family courts and consider wholesale reforms alongside a ‘truth and reconciliation’ enquiry that will consider what recompense should be made to families separated by secret courts.
  11. If our proposals should be tested in a number of selected courts to prove their value.

SUMMARY

As a father of three boys, a taxpayer and businessman who manages £60 million of branded business in the UK, I have no representation for my family, no voice in my country and no faith in the politicians who I have seen repeatedly kick this issue into the long grass for the last decade.

That is a damning state of affairs.

The denial of representation to Fathers4Justice by successive committees, working parties and hearings is an affront to democracy.

When I started Fathers4Justice ten years ago I could never have imagined that 10 years later we would still be campaigning and that our elected representatives would be opposing equality of treatment for both parents and supporting a secretive and brutal regime that has more in common with North Korea or Iran than it does a modern, progressive democracy.

I have seen and heard thousands of cases where parent has been pitched against parent in the equivalent of legalised cage fighting. I have witnessed the impact, severe trauma and distress not only on parents but also on the children in whose interest the system claims to act. You only need to watch this film to see understand the impact: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n-xgtAc2xaI&feature=plcp

For fathers cruelly separated for no good reason from their children, the moment they enter the system they are treated as inherent risks to their children in a Salem like witch hunt in secret courts behind closed doors whilst new boyfriends come and go unchecked.

In allowing this to happen successive governments have created a fatherless generation and a society so utterly dysfunctional that fathers can live with anyone else’s children, but can’t see their own. For those dads, losing your children is like a living bereavement.

If the courts worked in some small way that would be something but again, successive governments have allowed darkness to triumph over daylight in the family courts. It has created a festering legal backwater where outrageous miscarriages of justice go unreported and fathers are systematically separated from their children even when a court orders ‘contact’.

The fact a father can spend tens of thousands of pounds securing a court order that isn’t worth the paper it’s written on is alone a disgrace. This forcible separation of fathers from their children on the basis of their gender – for that is what this is – represents an insidious new gender apartheid. As Sir Bob Geldof said, it is like a holocaust of the heart and it is ripping the heart out of families every day across our country whilst we do nothing to act.

It is only thanks to the brave men, women and children in Fathers4Justice (and now Children4Justice) that the operation of secret family courts and the separation of children from their fathers now a matter of public interest. We are grateful that whilst we have no support in Parliament, we do enjoy the support of the majority of the British public.

At the heart of the family justice system is a wicked deceit. The ‘child’s best interests’ claim is relied on by the courts, the family justice system and the government to excuse a multitude of institutional failings. Yet there is not a shred of evidence to support this claim because NO records have been kept on the outcomes for children who have been through the family justice system.

It is morally and ethically incumbent on the committee to properly consider the serious matters raised by Fathers4Justice, not just the areas covered by the Bill. A Bill which cannot even mention the word ‘father’ has no serious value or meaning. Our parliamentarians have a duty of care to children and families to investigate the systemic failings of the family justice system which have been exposed by our campaigning, yet the committee has again this week only heard from the voices of the vested interests.

Denying 36,000 families a voice about what happens to them when they are cruelly separated from their children in secret courts adds insult to injury for parents who have already been prevented from speaking out about their own cases. I thought the use of Section 97 of the Children Act to bully parents and suffocate public debate about miscarriages of justice in the family courts was the final outrage.

But those parents and children have not only been silenced behind the closed doors of secret courts, they have been silenced by the very people who are supposed to represent them.

It is a dark day for our democracy.

Yours sincerely,
Matt O’Connor
Founder, Fathers4Justice

 

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