Father to risk jail in child-access protest

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The Independent Online

Tuesday 26 October 1999 is a day fixed in the mind of Shaun O'Connell. It was the last time the secondary school teacher from Gosport, Hampshire, saw his two children, then aged eight and six.

Four and a half years, five solicitors and 11 court hearings later, he is still refused contact with them, by what he described as the flawed family court system. On Friday, he will appear in court again - but this time it is for non-payment of his council tax, the result of a desperate attempt to publicise his case.

"I refuse to pay council tax because I'm not paying for the local authority to abuse my rights and those of my children," said Mr O'Connell, whose protest could lead to a prison sentence. "The whole child protection system has failed me."

Mr O'Connell, who works at an all-girls comprehensive school in the Portsmouth area, is one of dozens of people who have contacted The Independent on Sunday to raise their concerns about the failure of the family courts.

We reported last week on th pressure to reform a legal process that leaves thousands of fathers with little or no access to their children following a family breakdown.

The singer Bob Geldof, who has emerged at the forefront of the campaign for fathers' rights, warned that the custody debate is becoming a new electoral battleground. He is demanding that Britain follow Denmark, Sweden and some states in the US in granting fathers and mothers equal access in the event of separation or divorce.

The IoS interview has prompted an unprecedented response from readers of both sexes. Peg Sewell of Twickenham, Middlesex is one of several grandmothers who wrote in support of Mr Geldof.

"It's very tough for fathers," said the retired social work manager, a paternal grandmother to two young children. "It is wrong always to automatically assume that a child is best off with mother."

Mrs Sewell, 75, has rarely seen her grandchildren since her son was divorced from their mother seven years ago.

"There's this attitude of 'don't rock the boat' if you don't want to risk the little access you've got," she said. "My son's gut reaction was to go to court, but he was warned by other people that if he did, it would get worse.

"As a grandmother, you feel quite strongly. You miss out on seeing the children grow up: it's heartbreaking and very frustrating."

The Fathers 4 Justice group, which has pursued a campaign of civil disobedience in protest at the situation, claims that about 100 children each day lose contact with their fathers through breaches of court access orders. The Lord Chancellor's Department estimates that 25,000 such orders were broken in 2001 - 50 per cent of the total.

Have you had problems with the family courts over access to children? 'The Independent on Sunday' would like to hear about your experiences. Write or email sundaynews@independent.co.uk