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Equal Parenting versus Parental Involvement - One Dad's view

View profile for Andrew Robinson
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Those of you with busy lives (or indeed, those of you who have a life) have probably not been tracking the progress of the Child and Families Bill currently working its way through Parliament. However, you probably are aware of the antics of Batman and his mates campaigning for Families Need Fathers or Fathers 4 Justice as from time to time they make the front pages having broken into Buckingham Palace or carried out some other headline grabbing stunt. You may be surprised to know that both the campaigners and the proposed Act of Parliament are attempting to address the same issue, that is the perceived sidelining of Dads when a couple separate.

In truth, there is nothing in the current law that, by definition, gravitates against Dads. In the majority of cases they share Parental Responsibility for the children with Mum and therefore are afforded equivalent legal status. All a court will do in the event of a dispute as to living arrangements is try to come up with an arrangement that will best serve the child’s interest. Nevertheless, in practice, this can often mean the preservation of the domestic arrangements that existed prior to a separation but without Dad living at the home. This often results in Mum being primary carer (perhaps working part-time around the children’s school hours) with Dad continuing to work full time and therefore seeing the children at the weekend. The “problem” from a Dad’s perspective is that this often results in the child only staying at his home for 2 nights in every fortnight (with perhaps a midweek trip to McDonalds or the swimming baths thrown in in between).

 The real question that many Dads would ask is whether it is really so important for a child to maintain a pre-existing routine (and to have only one home base) after separation or whether a child does actually lose something intangible by not spending a broadly equivalent period of time with each of their parents, particularly in circumstances where those parents perhaps do not have the highest opinion of one another. In essence, does a Dad offer something to a child that is different to a Mum but equally important and which may necessitate the child spending a similar amount of time with him?

In some other countries (Australia being a good example) the court will begin with the starting principle that there should be equal division of time. Having consulted widely with those professionals and experts who work with children, our Government has rejected this principle and instead suggested a presumption that “involvement” of a parent in their child’s life will be in that child’s best interest. Additionally, the Government is planning to jettison the unhelpful labels of “residence” and “contact” which tend to elevate the importance of one parent (often Mum) above the other and has replaced these with the more helpful term of “child arrangements”.

I welcome these changes both as a family law professional and as a Dad. However, I also recognise (as a professional) that this is the way that the present law is largely interpreted anyway. As a Dad I feel that this presumption (of involvement) is the least that I should be able to expect.

As things stand there will be a lot of people who are equating “shared parenting” (or parental involvement) with “ equal parenting” who will be sorely disappointed. The question therefore arises as to whether the proposed changes go far enough given the perceived problem?

Whilst I recognise that equal parenting time will not be appropriate to many cases, and that the child’s welfare needs to be paramount, I do wonder whether this is really inconsistent with a starting point assuming equal care. After all, it is only a starting point. I also question whether a starting presumption of equal parenting might allow judges the flexibility to consider a child’s welfare as being the paramount consideration whilst also allowing them to give some secondary consideration to the parents. After all, “paramount consideration” is not synonymous with “only consideration”.

Is it really so radical for me, as a Dad, to think that my children might benefit from spending as much time with me at my home, after a separation, as they spend with their Mum at her home?