Parents' right to see children after divorce will be enshrined in law

Ministers hope to ensure children have meaningful relationships as stiff new penalties are introduced

Divorced mothers who refuse to give their former husbands access to their children could be hit with travel and driving bans or placed under home curfew, under plans to be announced today.

The stringent new penalties will be introduced with changes to the law which will establish a legal right for both parents to have a meaningful relationship with their children after a marriage breakdown.

Ministers will today propose different ways to establish the notion of "shared parenting" after separation in law. Judges will be expected, where possible, to ensure that fathers are given time with their sons and daughters and mothers who defy court orders requiring them to give such access will face a range of penalties including the removal of passports or driving licences and the imposition of home curfews.

"The Government believes that there should be a level playing field on enforcement so that denial of maintenance or refusal to facilitate contact both give rise to the same or very similar penalties," the consultation document to be published today states.

Despite some grandparents reportedly being legally warned not to send birthday cards to grandchildren last week, laws will not be changed to ensure grandparents are granted access to grandchildren. Ministers will announce that mothers will in future be warned that they may lose custody of their children if they repeatedly defy court orders. "We want the law to be far more explicit about the importance of children having an ongoing relationship with both their parents after separation, where that is safe and in the child's best interests," said the Children's minister, Tim Loughton.

Campaigners say that without a legal right to see their children, fathers can be excluded. Over the past decade, Fathers 4 Justice has staged high-profile protests including climbing on to the roof of Buckingham Palace.

According to the Government, studies show that following a divorce, 90 per cent of children reside mainly with one of their parents – with just 12 per cent of these children living with their father. Under the four options proposed by the Government, family courts will have a legal duty to ensure that parents have a continuing relationship with their children if a marriage breaks down – because a "child's welfare is likely to be furthered".

Ministers point to a 2008 study which claimed children with "highly-involved dads develop better friendships, more empathy and higher levels of educational achievement and self-esteem".

According to the study children with involved fathers are less likely to become involved with crime or substance abuse. Earlier this year, ministers had rejected the advice from the economist David Norgrove, who chaired an independent official review into family justice, and warned of the situation in Australia after the country introduced "shared parenting" rights. There a series of legal claims and counter-claims led to severe delays in child custody cases.

"Amending the law will allow people to appeal. It's really not needed as judges already take into account these factors," said Matt Bryant, of Resolution, which represents 6,000 family lawyers.

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