“The combination of feminism and the welfare state will reduce the status of fathers to that of household pets” - a prediction attributed to Bertrand Russell in the 1930s.
For so many fathers in our society, who have experienced parental breakdown and separation, this is a prediction that has become all too true.
Each year sees tens of thousands of divorce applications in England and Wales, together with parental breakdown and separation in an unknown, but probably larger, number of cohabiting relationships. Tens of thousands of dependent children are affected annually as a result. In about three-quarters of divorce cases, the application for divorce is brought by the woman.
Fortunately, the majority of separated parents are able to come to amicable arrangements for the care of their child(ren) without resorting to a family court. In such circumstances, each parent has an equal legal status, providing they both have full parental responsibility. The problems arise in contested cases, especially when there are allegations of domestic violence or child abuse against one partner, when resort has to be made to law to decide who cares for the children, or indeed on the need for criminal charges.
Experience in Canada suggests that such allegations peak at times of family breakdown.
Basis of family law
The Children Act 1989, and subsequent rules, regulations and case law, underpins the application of family law in England and Wales.
The core of the Act on family breakdown is based on the concept, when parental separation is unavoidable, of a ‘resident’ parent and a ‘contact’ parent. Although both parents may have full parental responsibility, the legal status of each is unequal, since the resident parent in effect has ultimate control of the care and upbringing of the child, and the contact parent has little or none if the resident parent is so minded. The Act can thus be a recipe for conflict in contested cases in child proceedings, since it promotes an adversarial situation.
All family proceedings at lower judicial level are held in private, with only the parties concerned and their legal representatives, together with court officers and any professional witnesses, being allowed to attend. All matters relating to a family case are confidential. Family proceedings are not open to the media or to the public, or even to a member of Parliament. In contrast, family proceedings in the High Court and Court of Appeal are open to the media and public, but subject to reporting restrictions on names to protect the identity of any child(ren).
It is only comparatively recently, that a ‘litigant-in-person’ (ie. a person representing himself) has been allowed to be accompanied in court by a layperson (a ‘McKenzie Friend’) to advise him (or her) and take notes, subject to the agreement of the court.