Geldof: custody is the new battleground

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The Independent Online

Middle-class fury at the way the family courts treat fathers is turning the child custody debate into a new electoral battle ground, Bob Geldof warned yesterday.

The popstar, now at the forefront of the campaign for fathers' rights, said a huge and politically active constit- uency of angry parents want fundamental changes to the law.

In an interview with The Independent on Sunday, he repeated his demand that the legal presumption in favour of mothers be overturned when families break up. He said there was no evidence that women make better parents than men.

Controversy over the failure of the family justice system has intensified in recent months. Campaigners dressed as cartoon superheroes, including Spiderman and Batman, have staged protests on Tower Bridge and the roof of the Royal Courts of Justice.

And last week, Mr Justice Munby staged a withering attack on the family courts, saying he was ashamed at the treatment of a father who was denied all contact with a child for two years.

"This is dangerous for the Government," said Mr Geldof, who went through a custody fight over his three children with his former wife, Paula Yates. "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," he said.

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.

"This law doesn't have a heart or soul. It's cold rubbish. It's deeply and fundamentally flawed," he said yesterday.

"Society has moved ahead of the law. The law is so stupid, so brutish in its implementation and simply against the father."

Mr Geldof said: "You haven't got a hope in hell of getting what you want. It's a hopeless battle before you even start. Most men are told to accept their lot, and that's no longer being accepted. We know that because of the growth of activist groups.

"The way that the law treated me and men in general was with contempt. It was humiliating."

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.

According to the recently formed Fathers 4 Justice group, about 100 children a day lose contact with their fathers through breaches of court access orders.

Yesterday, the Government promised a green paper to improve the system, including plans for helping parents resolve disputes without resort to the courts.

The IoS, though, has learned that ministers intend to go further by targeting mothers who falsely accuse their former partners of domestic violence.

"There is no doubt domestic violence is very serious ... but there are some cases, and I don't know how many there are, in which domestic violence is being used as an excuse to restrain contact," said Lord Filkin, a minister at the Department for Constitutional Affairs, which is responsible for the family courts.

The green paper would include proposals for "diagnosing" at an early stage whether an allegation of domestic violence was well-founded. While genuine allegations of domestic violence had to be dealt with firmly, action should also be taken against mothers who make false claims.

The move follows a legal battle in which a mother fabricated an allegation of domestic violence as a means of stopping the father having contact with his child. In that case the claim that the father had abused the child was rejected, leading the judge, Mr Justice Munby, to make an outspoken attack on the way the family court system settles disputes over children.

The man, who cannot be named for legal reasons, was forced to give up his five-year battle for access to his seven-year-old daughter after 43 court hearings, which were presided over by 16 judges.

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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.

The family court system is based on the adversarial rules of litigation which force divorcing parents to adopt hostile and aggressive positions when they put their cases to the judge. Lawyers advise their clients to throw as much dirt as possible at the other side in the hope that some will stick.

The Government has failed to come up with an alternative to pleading fault for getting a speedy divorce. This has also helped to create an adversarial culture in the family court room.Mediation and conciliation services have not been promoted properly as an alternative to litigation.

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.