A recent report based on research by the University of Warwick examined nearly 200 family law case files from 2011 to investigate whether the family courts in England and Wales have a gender bias against fathers. Lead researcher on the project Dr Maebh Harding concluded that “contact applications by fathers were […] overwhelmingly successful”, with 88% of fathers who applied for contact with their children being awarded some kind of access.
Glen Poole, editor at online magazine insideMAN and author of Equality for Men responded to the study in the Telegraph, disputing the conclusion and maintaining that the role of single fathers is far from equal: “The entire system of parenting in the UK is set up around the presumption that mother knows best and that when parents separate there should be a primary parent (nearly always the mother) and a secondary parent (nearly always the father).
“The role which is reserved for the secondary parent is unfair, unequal and for many, a deeply unfulfilling way to experience parenthood.”
However, Dr Harding defended the study’s results: “Whilst it’s true that mothers were usually the primary care giver in contact applications, this was simply a reflection of the social reality that women are more likely to take on the role after a relationship breakdown.
“But there was actually no indication of any bias towards mothers over fathers by the courts; in fact we established there was a similar success rate for mothers and fathers applying for orders to have their children live with them.
“And although the overall number of residence orders made for mothers was higher than those made for fathers, this was because a large number of such orders were made for mothers as respondents in cases where the father sought contact.”
Family law solicitor, mediator and arbitrator Frances Lindsay commented on the results of the study: “Despite what seems to be the accepted view that the courts are biased towards mothers and that fathers are discriminated against, it is simply not true. There is little to no gender bias in the family courts, no matter whether a dispute is about children or money. The courts now recognise the importance of both parents in a child’s life. So much so that the Children and Families Act 2014 amended the Children Act 1989 to include a presumption that after a child’s parents separate it will be in the child’s interest for both parents to be involved in the child’s life unless the contrary is shown.
“If you are a father feeling aggrieved and powerless, the worst thing you can do is threaten to take the children away, unless you really believe that they would be better off with you. Generally, the courts can see through applications where the father is working full time and intends to hand over the care of the children to a paid carer or a relative.“
The research also raised concerns about the effects of cuts to legal aid on child protection issues following separation, with equal care receiving higher priority than the most suitable arrangement for children. Many parents are now unable to apply to court over children’s disputes due to a lack of funding. Dr Harding explained: “We have concerns that the wholesale diversion of these cases from court through cuts to legal aid will mean that parents will agree to unsafe arrangements where risk factors are not appropriately managed or will be unable to reach agreement about having contact with their children.”
There are, however, several alternatives to court divorce which offer a more efficient, cheaper and faster option for parents with disputes over children, such as mediation and collaborative family law. Frances Lindsay says: “Going to court should be the last thing any parent should do. Once an application is made, parents are set against each other and it is unlikely that they will be able to get back from that. If you are having difficulties with children’s arrangements, remember these are your children; no one else loves them or knows them like you do. By going to court you are asking a whole load of social workers and a judge to make decisions that should be yours. If you can’t talk to your ex alone, go to mediation, counselling, therapy – anything that helps you resolve the issue with as little animosity as possible.
“No matter how angry or betrayed you feel, your children don’t need to hear you bad-mouth your ex or grouse about money. When their future is uncertain, they need to know that you will both be there for them, not worry that they’ll have to start a new school or move house.”family law solicitor Beaconsfield, family law solicitor Berkshire, family law solicitor Buckinghamshire, family law solicitor Maidenhead