Sooner or later a father is going to pick up a gun and go visit a judge or a Cafcass [Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service] office.” The pressure group Fathers 4 Justice (F4J) responsible for that inflammatory quote (voiced by its 36-year-old chair and founder Matt O’Connor) has only been up and running for a few months, but a series of media-savvy stunts means is already the biggest and most radical fathers’ rights group in the UK.
It was F4J that hit the headlines with its 50-strong invasion of the Family Division of the High Court to mark Father’s Day last month; then there was an attempt to present a giant inflatable heart to Family Division president Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss on Valentine’s Day by members dressed in Elvis Presley drag at the Royal Courts of Justice (otherwise known as ‘Heartbreak Hotel’); and prior to that, there was the occupation of the Lord Chancellor’s Department (LCD) by 200 fathers dressed as Father Christmas.
Such seemingly harmless antics might have embedded the group into the national consciousness in double-quick time, but as the above quote suggests, there is a new militancy to this latest addition to the fathers’ rights movement. The desire for confrontation is already causing considerable disquiet among family law practitioners, who feel that this is the last thing such an emotionally raw area of the law needs.
O’Connor, a marketing consultant from Suffolk, protests that his words were “totally taken out of context” – apparently, he was trying to explain to a journalist the frustration that recently drove a father to kill himself and his two children. “We’re trying to be responsible and we’re promoting a message of peace and non-violent direct action,” he claims. “But this is about people who have been cut off from their kids, destroying the sacred bond between parent and child. Frankly, countries have gone to war for less.”
F4J styles itself as a new civil rights movement campaigning for a child’s right to see both parents and grandparents. “All children, their parents and grandparents, have inalienable rights to enjoy a meaningful, loving relationship with each other that has been woven into our social fabric for more than 6,000 years,” it argues. “Parliament’s express intention in the 1989 Children’s Act was exactly this, yet the child’s best interest principle has now effectively become the mother’s best interest.” The group points to the recent ruling by Lord Justice Thorpe in the Court of Appeal, where he expressed regret at being unable to assist the father whose former partner was reported to have disliked him so much that she refused to let their four-year-old daughter see photos of him.
O’Connor says: “This judgment has given the green light to every recalcitrant mother in the country that finds contact upsetting… that they could veto contact between children and their fathers if this made them ‘anxious or depressed’. So, why is the Lord Chancellor’s Department failing to uphold the will of Parliament? Why is it failing families? Why is it failing our children and grandchildren?”
Over the years, family law specialists have become familiar with aggrieved dads and groups such as Families Need Fathers (FNF) and the Equal Parenting Council. So one might also ask, why is there a need for the new group? FNF had been going for 29 years, O’Connor points out, adding: “The speed that they’re going means that my two boys would inherit the same system and I could become a grandfather without being able to see my grandchildren. I have an obligation and duty to my children to change the system.” O’Connor says that the likes of the FNF might be content to pursue a policy of “tea and Jammy Dodgers” with the LCD, but his group is looking for quicker results.
The 1,200-member F4J is advocating a campaign of non-violent direct action and is presently involved in a ‘Summer of Discontent’ campaign.
So what is the group’s charge against the family law system? In short, O’Connor
argues that the courts are perpetuating what he calls a form of “gender apartheid”. He flags up a recent acknowledgment by Butler-Sloss that 40 per cent of fathers lose contact with their children within two years of the parents’ relationship breaking down. “We reckon that 100 children every day lose partial or total contact with their families,” he says. There were in the region of 55,000 contact orders made in 2001, and some half of those were flouted, yet the courts were reluctant to exercise the options available to them – to fine or jail mothers – for fear of making a bad situation worse.
According to Michael Cox, a barrister and a spokesman for F4J, the recent ruling by Judge Thorpe is symptomatic of the wider bias within the system. The judge told the father, who had not seen his daughter for two years, that he had “every sympathy” with him over the “truly tragic” case, but that he could not overturn the total ban on contact that had been imposed at Chelmsford County Court. The mother refused to even allow her daughter to look at photographs of her father, and objected when social workers attempted to read letters from him. “I can only end by expressing hope that, sooner or later, light will fall into the dark places and there will be a happier outcome than any I can see as we are sat here this afternoon,” added the judge.
“The reality is that he hasn’t got the balls,” Cox says. “We say that if a mother is not prepared to act in the best interests of the child, then residence should be transferred. You have to be brutal about this. The best interests of the child are best served by having a good relationship with both parents.”
According to many family law experts this depiction of the system as institutionally biased against fathers does not bear any kind of proper analysis. “They say that the system is inherently sexist and discriminates against fathers,” says Louisa Cross of the Solicitors Family Law Association (SFLA). “It’s a complete myth. It simply doesn’t,” she insists. However, as she points out, the court does discriminate in favour of the primary carer (be it father or mother) because the overall objective is to provide stability for the child at a time of huge emotional flux.
On the point of mothers flouting contact orders, Cross says that the courts are left with the “limited tools” of either a fine or prison. “Faced with a parent obstructing contact, the court has to decide whether contact is of so much benefit to the child that it outweighs the damage to the child of imprisoning the primary carer,” she says.
However, she adds: “Nobody has the right to disobey court orders.” This controversial area of family law was the subject of the ‘Making Contact Work’ report to the Lord Chancellor from an advisory committee chaired by High Court judge Mr Justice Wall, but no action has yet been taken.
What concerns the SFLA is the disinformation that the likes of F4J are routinely firing out, which adds to the sense of grievance already felt by both parties. “The danger in misinforming people and perpetuating myths is that good, caring dads will be left with the impression that there is simply no point in maintaining contact with their children,” says Cross.
This is a concern shared by Cafcass. “They’re saying a lot of things that are simply inaccurate about Cafcass,” says head of communications Cathryn Byrne. “Our concern is that this debate should be about what’s right for the children and this is actually fuelling some kind of gender warfare.”
Cafcass lists six claims that F4J routinely makes that it claims are misleading or inaccurate. These include: the assertion that its staff are former probation officers used to dealing with hardened criminals (Cafcass says they are qualified in social work and experienced in working with children and families); that only one in seven officers have training, and that even then it is less than a parking warden receives (they are fully-qualified social work professionals who receive ongoing training and professional development according to Cafcass); and that there are no records on the outcomes for children.
Sue Bland, head of family law at Mayfair firm Gordon Dadds, understands the anger felt by the likes of F4J. However, although not all family law experts are out of sympathy with such groups, she views what they see as bias in the family law courts as flaws in the system. “It’s all too easy to make life difficult [for fathers],” she says. “It just takes so long to get anywhere – for example, several months to get a final hearing over contact – and then you get an order that the mother ignores.” She flags up a practice in parts of the US when a partner breaches an order and then the court actively considers switching residence to the father.
As far as F4J is concerned, the legal profession, from the judiciary down to the solicitors on the high street, is all part of the same problem. Much of the energies of fathers’ groups have been spent picketing the homes of leading members of the
judiciary, but F4J is planning a ‘Stop the Gravy Train’ campaign, concentrating on all players in the family law industry. There is already a practice of naming and shaming perceived law firm offenders in South Wales.
O’Connor, a father of two, describes the contribution of lawyers to the breakdown of his own marriage as “like pouring napalm on a burning house”. He believes that it cost him and his ex-wife in the region of £30,000 in legal fees, plus a charge over his wife’s house as a result of the legal aid statutory charge. “The system just works on maximum conflict,” he says. “The only ones who benefit are those people on this grotesque gravy train of judges, barristers, solicitors, psychiatrists and Cafcass officers.”
In the week that The Lawyer visits O’Connor, he has returned from a day in court in Ipswich, where he was defending a charge of criminal damage after he was arrested for painting purple the door of a Cafcass office. There have also been reports of Cafcass staff members being singled out in demonstrations and their names chanted.
Because of this campaign Cafcass believes that F4J has “engaged in unacceptable behaviour, which prevents us from holding constructive dialogue with them”. O’Connor admits that he is “surprised to still be at liberty” and says, almost regretfully, that he anticipated being arrested on the group’s Father Christmas demo.
So, how far is F4J prepared to go? Women did not get the vote by asking nicely, replies Cox, paraphrasing Tony Benn. “As a citizen, you have duty to draw attention to bad law, and that’s what we’re doing,” he argues. “If push comes to shove, then I’m prepared to man the barricades and be arrested. This isn’t just about me, but it’s about my children. I have four boys now and they’re going to be fathers in due course and I don’t want them to suffer what I’ve suffered.”
Fathers 4 Justice – the demands in their own words
Parliament intended that the child’s interests were best served by children maintaining a loving, meaningful relationship with both parents.
Is it in the child’s best interests to deny them the love of their parents or grandparents?
Is it in the child’s best interests that their parents are forced onto benefits or are effectively asset-stripped fighting protracted legal battles when they have no hope of seeing their children because judges refuse to enforce their own orders?
Often the very people who proclaim to be acting in the child’s best interest are those who profit the most. Money (often savings, salaries, equity in property) for your children quickly becomes an income stream for solicitors, judges and a grotesque gravy train of other ‘experts’.
Rights for all the family – children, mothers, fathers and grandparents – should be embraced, including an open, accountable system of family law that is open to public and Parliament scrutiny.
Alternatives to fining or imprisoning recalcitrant mothers could include community service orders or simply transferring residence to the father.
Parents and grandparents currently have no legal right to see their children and grandchildren in this country.