Western Mail, 21st January 2006
When horrific allegations surfaced this week that fathers’ rights group Fathers4Justice had been linked to a plot to kidnap Tony Blair’s young son Leo, I believe the outcome was inevitable.
In one fell swoop, this organisation threw out any vestiges of remaining sympathy it had enjoyed with a public who at one time had a sneaking regard for some of its crazier exploits.
Matt O’Connor, the founder of the organisation created just over three years ago – famous for promoting Spiderman to take over Tower Bridge, Santa Claus to close the Second Severn crossing and Batman to climb Buckingham Palace – moved quickly to announce Fathers4Justice would be disbanded.
Distancing himself from these extremists, O’Connor was clearly shocked by the actions of this very small minority.
So, should we be sorry that these men have said they will disappear, leaving precious few voices in the battle to improve fathers’ rights?
Or should we be relieved at the removal of an increasingly extreme group which appears to believe that throwing condoms full of purple powder at Tony Blair or breaching machine-gun security at Buckingham Palace are not dramatic enough actions to suit their purposes?
As a lawyer that deals with the difficult and mostly traumatic fall-out from difficult divorces, I witness at first hand on a daily basis the problems that Fathers4Justice set out to highlight and hopefully solve.
It is a fact recognised by judges and family lawyers that the current judicial system sometimes fails to meet the needs of parents deprived of contact with the children that they were responsible for bringing into the world.
Most of you reading this will live fulfilled and contented lives. But how would you feel if your estranged partner had refused to allow you to see your child for a decade or more without justification?
How would you feel if you had to go back to court, time and time again, in front of judge after judge, arguing something that is a basic human right?
I know of one father who went through 43 different court proceedings, in front of a string of judges as he fought to see his child. I had a client who fought for two years, tooth-and-nail, to gain limited access to his two children before he finally ran out of money, but more importantly energy, as the courts failed to make his wife listen to its demands on her.
There is the case of a father who had a knock on his door at 11 o’clock one night. It was his 16-year-old son who he had not seen for several years, finally being able to leave his mother’s house and explain that she had done everything she could to turn him against his father.
These cases are happening on a daily basis, the length and breadth of Wales and the UK.
I would not condone the extreme antics of any of the Fathers4Justice groups in this country which have left me increasingly worried at where this organisation has been heading.
Even their sillier antics like occupying the London Eye have left people annoyed; I have a friend for example who had taken his mother to the Eye to celebrate her 65th birthday, only to find it closed because of these protestors.
And like any organisation, I am satisfied that not every one of their members has cause to be angry. Some people inevitably find themselves drawn to an organisation like Fathers4Justice for entirely the wrong reasons.
In summary, I think that Fathers4Justice has probably served its purpose. There must be few people in the country that are not aware of the problems they have highlighted; and indeed these are problems that the Government has pledged to address.
In particular, the Children and Adoption Bill has recently passed through the House of Lords.
Published by the children’s minister, Beverley Hughes, courts will be able to order parents to pay financial compensation to their former partner to cover any financial losses incurred because they unreasonably withhold access.
They will also be able to instruct parents to take part in activities that “promote contact” such as meeting a counsellor or attending information or guidance sessions about contact arrangements or information sessions about mediation.
However, though courts will have powers to send parents to information sessions about mediation, they will not be able to compel them to attend mediation itself as happens in parts of the US – to the frustration of some fathers’ groups.
The courts will also retain their existing powers to deal with contempt and their ability to alter the residence and contact arrangements of a child.
This Bill promises a fresh approach to this problem; allowing judges and family lawyers to become more optimistic than they have ever been about being able to work towards swifter and fairer outcomes.
In the meantime, I read in the Western Mail that the Welsh region of Fathers4Justice is determined to press on, while of course there is another group called Families Need Fathers also in existence that is pressing for much the same changes in the law.
Parents are of course free to pursue and join any group they wish. Whichever route they select, they will have to continue to demonstrate determination and energy and seek redress only through proper court procedures.
We enjoy a rigorous legal system in the UK, albeit one that does not always work, but I firmly believe that 2006 will be the year in which changes in the way the courts carry out their business will help many of those estranged parents who are genuinely in the right.