Family law judge laments the brighter the parents the more bitter the divorce

“Contact and residence disputes are no respecters of class barriers,” ruled Lord Justice Wall in A v A. He made a 50-50 shared residence order under which the children would spend equal time with each parent. The case concerned a professional couple, known as Mr and Mrs A, and their children, B and C, who were 11 years and 9 years respectively. Mr A, a hospital consultant, had applied for joint residence on the grounds that his ex-wife, a teacher, had been making unilateral decisions about the children’s health and education and marginalising him from those decisions. According to a psychiatrist B, a vulnerable and sensitive child, was “devastated and distracted” by his parents’ arguments and C, who had been very fond of her father, turned against him and no longer wanted contact at one point.
Lord Justice Wall said that the ex-husband and wife were “in their different ways, and away from each other … individually charming and attractive people”. “Their hostility towards each other, however, was tangible and frequently led to quite irrational behaviour,” he said, adding that “it was frequently the case that the more intelligent the parents, the more intransigent and bitter the dispute”. This is the second time the judge has taken the unusual step and gone public with his concerns in recent months. In December he made public his judgment in the case (See “Blaming the system is not the answer”, aggrieved father told in contact dispute) of a father who withdrew his application for contact with his 12-year-old son.

According to a report from the National Youth Advocacy Service, which represented the children in court, “a virtual state of war” between the parents had been going on for over five years. “It appeared that the first response of both parents in the event of even the most minor disagreement was to rush to solicitors or to make applications to the court,” the report said. The bundle of case papers was “so large it could be measured with a ruler”. It continued: “… Reading the bundle was a sad testimony that two intelligent people had lost all perspective and common sense in their hatred of each other and their need to battle and win over their ex-partner.”

Lord Justice Wall said that it was a case where a shared residence order was appropriate. But, he said, it also demonstrated clearly that “shared residence orders are not a panacea”. “Shared residence and an equal division of the children’s time between their parents’ houses is possible in this case because the parents live close to each other, and the children can go to school from either home,” the judge continued. “The children welcome it because, in C’s words, it gives his parents nothing left to fight about. But it is a pragmatic solution, which does nothing to address the underlying hostility between the parents. Whether or not is succeeds, only time will tell.”