A report published today (2/6/2015) by the Universities of Reading and Warwick and funded by the NuffieldFoundation, reports that there is no indication of gender bias in contested cases in County Courts.
Families Need Fathers acted in an advisory capacity on this project, as it does in many research reports relating to family law and policy in the UK. Whilst we are always happy to contribute to this process by feeding in our experience of supporting separated parents, we do not determine the outcomes or conclusions of such projects; only advise on the experiences of our service users.
For the avoidance of doubt, the charity would like to make it clear that it strongly disagrees with any implication that fathers do not ever experience any bias in the process of family law cases. The charity exists to support non-resident parents, predominantly fathers, in maintaining a meaningful relationship with their children after separation, and we see day-to-day the numerous challenges that these fathers face in the courts to demonstrate that their children would benefit from a relationship with them.
Whilst the wording of the law in itself is not biased against fathers, the effects of bias in the interpretation of the law runs much deeper than whether a court eventually orders some level of contact or not, or other measures which can be obtained in court files. Perceptions of the role of fathers, particularly relating to care of younger children, continue to influence some cases as much as the relevant facts of a case. For example, many fathers frequently find themselves unable to obtain staying contact with younger children as they are told by courts that the children cannot be away overnight from their mother at these ages. This is simply not considered an issue in families if a mother works nights, or the child spends time with their grandparents overnight. It is the charity’s view that this form of bias regarding the appropriate roles of fathers in relation to child care continues to be a significant obstacle for fathers trying to obtain contact with their children through the courts, particularly in acrimonious cases.
Families Need Fathers would also draw attention to how experiences of the family court system feed in to perceptions of bias. Issues such as the lack of adequate enforcement of court orders give rise to the strong perception that courts are not properly committed to enabling children to maintain a relationship with both of their parents. Many parents find themselves unable, either financially or emotionally, to keep returning to court to try and resolve these issues. These parents are invariably missed in official statistics, though in our experience, they form a sizeable proportion of the parents we help.
Whilst the courts have indeed made progress over recent years regarding how private family law cases are handled, there is still a long way to go to ensure that traditional perceptions of the roles mothers and fathers do not influence outcomes. These too often damage a child’s chances of having contact with his or her parent and grandparents.
It is our experience that very similar cases can continue to have widely divergent outcomes depending on which court or region a case is heard in. We consider the dismissal of any bias in the system as a whole to be out of step with the experience of thousands of our service users, and fear that the dismissal of valid concerns based on a small sample of cases risks stalling the essential and ongoing progress in family justice reform.
The report How do county courts share the care of children between parents? can be accessed on this link: http://www.nuffieldfoundation.org/how-do-county-courts-share-care-children-between-parents