Weblog archive for April 2004

2nd April 2004

Judge admits family court system fails fathers

... judges needed to "face up honestly" to the failings of the system so as not to forfeit public confidence ....

We failed them. The system failed them ....

We need to take note. We need to act. And we need to act now. 

Mr Justice Munby, a judge of the Family Division

Mr Justice Munby, a respected judge of the Family Division, launched an extraordinary attack on the family justice system for failing separated fathers and their children.

Mr Justice Munby said he felt "ashamed" after dealing with a man who had fought unsuccessfully for five years to see his daughter, and he argued that mothers who repeatedly defied court rulings on access should be jailed.

"A wholly deserving father left my court in tears having been driven to abandon his battle for contact with his seven-year-old daughter."

"From the father's perspective, the last two years of litigation have been an exercise in absolute futility. It is shaming to have to say it, but I agree with his view. I feel desperately sorry for him. I am very sad the system is as it is."

The judge ended with a public apology to the father, who was described as a warm and caring man, and his daughter. "We failed them. The system failed them."

The judge suggested that the way the courts dealt with contact applications might even breach the European convention on human rights, which guarantees the right to respect for family life, the right to a fair hearing within a reasonable time, and the enforcement of court orders.

3rd April 2004

Consultation on access / contact overhaul expected this summer

We would be looking at a range of ways of trying to help parents shift their behaviour, focus on the interests of the child, get an understanding of how to go about negotiating with their former partner .... the intention was to bear down on the most intractable cases 

Lord Filkin, the family justice minister in the Department of Constitutional Affairs

We would welcome an end to the adversarial system and an attempt to deliver the best for the children. 

John Baker of Families Need Fathers

Lord Filkin, the family justice minister in the department of constitutional affairs, yesterday promised a green paper before parliament's summer recess would set out a better system.

Pilot projects in London, Brighton and Sunderland to try out "early intervention" in contact disputes before they reach court are now expected to require parents to go to mediation, instead of the original proposal to "encourage" mediation unveiled this month.

Although contact time would vary depending on the circumstances, there would be "clear expectations" that both parents would have the time to form a meaningful relationship with the child. That could mean agreeing US-style parenting plans, setting out weekly access.

Mothers defying child access arrangements may be forced into classes on how to be a better parent or do community service.

5th April 2004

Bob Geldof: "custody is the new battleground"

This is dangerous for the Government. It's a huge constituency out there of women as well as men. It's not just the father who's affected, but the grandmothers and aunts as well. As many women stop me on the street as men. This is coming home to roost big time. 

Bob Geldof

There appears to be increasing pressure to sort these problems out. Although this is primarily an interview with Bob Geldof in the Independent on Sunday, it contains other snippets worth quoting:

"Even the middle-class members of the Townswomen's Guild have been campaigning to give fathers more access to their children and, in June, Mr Geldof will be the keynote speaker at their annual conference. He is making a film on the issue for Channel 4."

"Mr Geldof said that ensuring that fathers were given the right to equal access could help stem the tide of divorce, which now affects half of all marriages. He predicted that the law would change within the next few decades, making a 50:50 access split the norm - in line with Denmark, Sweden and some US states."

"Courts can't stop mothers from flouting contact orders that grant fathers access to their children. Although judges have the power to impose tough prison sentences for persistent and deliberate breaches they rarely believe it is in the interests of the child to send its mother to prison. Judges lack a range of middle-ranking punishments and incentives to encourage mothers to comply with contact orders."

"Family cases take too long to go through the court system. In last week's case a father spent five years trying to get the courts to allow him proper access to his daughter. In the end he gave up after the judge agreed that the system had failed him. And the secrecy of the family courts means that mothers and fathers are not discouraged from litigation by the prospect of bad publicity while the media is banned from scrutinising obvious failures of the system."

6th April 2004

Proposed extra rights for unmarried fathers in Scotland

I want the law to recognise that children are better protected when the adults around them have greater rights and responsibilities for them. There is nothing more distressing as far as children are concerned than being the pawns in a relationship that breaks down. Children need and deserve the love and the support of both parents in these situations irrespective of what the parents then do when they move on with their life. 

Cathy Jamieson, Scotland's Justice Minister

Plans to allow swifter divorces in Scotland and to give greater rights to unmarried fathers were unveiled yesterday by Cathy Jamieson, the Justice Minister.

The proposed changes to family law in Scotland could also see greater legal safeguards for cohabiting couples and more rights for step-parents. Grandparents could also be given greater access rights in the event of a family break-up.

Unmarried fathers who register the birth of their child with the mother will also be given full parental rights under the proposals. At the moment, only the mother has such rights, even if the father’s name is on the child’s birth certificate.

10th April 2004

Alternative punishments for thwarting access?

The penalties as they stand are not working because they are seen as too punitive towards children, so we have to look at alternatives which stand more chance of being used. 

Government source

We’d agreed that I’d have the children every other weekend and one evening in the week, but she didn’t stick to it.... We went to court and access was granted but soon after that she started disobeying the order.... Every time they came they had notes with them saying I’d given them the wrong food last time or that they hadn’t been comfortable. 

John, 42

A few more potential details of the consultation on access appeared in The Times today:

"MOTHERS who defy court orders and prevent their former husbands or partners from seeing their children face tough penalties under government plans to give a fairer deal to fathers. Ministers plan a series of measures to tackle what they believe is a bias against men in the family courts. In particular, they want to send a strong signal to mothers not to break the terms of their access agreements."

"Under present law, judges can order a fine or send a woman to jail if she refuses to honour court orders on access. However, courts are often reluctant to do either, fearing that it is against the interests of children to have their mother sent to jail or cut back on household expenses to pay a fine. As a result, often nothing is done. A Green Paper this summer will set out new penalties that judges can use if mothers repeatedly defy agreements, including taking away driving licences and ordering community service."

In another move to improve the family courts, the Department for Education and Skills is trying to tackle delays in cases reaching court, which can mean fathers being denied access to children for months.

23rd April 2004

Cost of processing CSA claims is 20% higher using the new IT system!

All training issues were remediable pretty quickly. The brutal fact was the one component that did not work properly was the IT system. 

Andrew Smith, Work and Pensions Secretary

This is from Tenders Direct:

The Work and Pensions Parliamentary Committee is evaluating the DWP’s IT modernisation programme, one of the largest of its kind in Europe, focusing on the reforms that are taking place in the Child Support Agency. Work and Pensions Secretary Andrew Smith gave evidence to the Committee on April 19.

Pressed to explain why the cost of processing CSA claims was 20% higher using the new IT system, Smith admitted that, with the benefit of hindsight, there were several ways the contract could have been strengthened. He also acknowledged that too large a proportion - approximately 85% - of the DWP’s IT contracts relied on a single supplier, namely EDS. He told the committee that in future the department would seek to use a wider range of suppliers.

CSA chief executive Doug Smith told MPs that teething problems with the agency’s new IT system had been largely down to technical issues rather than human error. He praised the CSA staff who he said had “played a blinder” in dealing with the problems thrown up by the system.

Tenders Direct, "Whitehall procurement policy under fire again"

27th April 2004

CSA publishes Business Plan for 2004-05

2003-04 was in any terms a difficult year for the Agency. It followed immediately on the introduction of the new child support arrangements for new clients. At its start we had high hopes that we would be able to move reasonably quickly to convert existing cases to the new arrangements. In the event that did not prove possible. The computer service provided to us by EDS proved less reliable and contained more defects than expected. Remedying these has proved more complex and time consuming than was expected. And as a result we enter the new business year with a computer service that does not fully meet our needs. Our priority throughout the past year has been to do our best to shield clients from the impact of those problems. We have not always been successful and for that I apologise. 

Doug Smith, CSA Chief Executive

This was presumably not the Business Plan the CSA hoped to produce! With the computer system still not working properly, and no certainty about when it will be working properly, if ever, the CSA cannot commit to forward progress onto the new scheme.

Case Compliance: By 31 March 2005 to be collecting child maintenance and/or arrears from 78 per cent of all cases with a maintenance liability using the collection service.

Cash Compliance: By 31 March 2005 to be collecting 75 per cent of child maintenance and/or arrears due to be paid through the collection service.

Key Planning Assumptions: EDS will, by the autumn, have improved the computer and telephony service to the point at which all applications are capable of being progressed as intended.

Just 75%! Not very ambitious.

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