Law frustrates mothers' desire to tell the other side of story

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The Independent Online

They are portrayed as scorned women who take out their bitterness over a failed relationship on the innocent fathers of their children.

They are portrayed as scorned women who take out their bitterness over a failed relationship on the innocent fathers of their children.

But for the former partners of men in the Fathers 4 Justice movement, the high-profile protests are a source of frustration and intimidation which leave them no right to reply.

Fathers 4 Justice (F4J) was set up in 2002 by Matt O'Connor, a marketing consultant, when he became frustrated with the lack of access to his children after the breakdown of his marriage. He and a handful of men banded together after meeting through support groups and becoming disillusioned with their failure to change what they claim are fundamental inequalities in the family court system.

Using the idea that fathers are superheroes to their children, they dressed as cartoon characters and staged protestsfor maximum publicity. Membership has grown to an estimated 7,000, and protests such as the flour-bomb attack in the House of Commons in May, and the Buckingham Palace stunt made headlinesworldwide. But the women whose former partners have joined F4J are often plunged into an impossible position by the stunts. They are frustrated by what they say is one-sided reporting of their ex-partners' conduct..

If they speak out, they risk breaching court injunctions over naming their children in public - many of the men, including the Batman protester Jason Hatch, circumvent these rules by changing their names.

When details do emerge, it becomes obvious that in many cases, the circumstances are not as clear cut as F4J often portrays them. Mr O'Connor's former wife Sophie has said - and he has since admitted - that he had affairs, drank heavily and failed to keep to the initial arrangements for access to their children. Another F4J member, Conrad Campbell, told how he was jailed last year for texting his son on his birthday. But he had been sent on an anger management programme for attacking his former partner, and was under a court injunction.

Lawyers who act for the women also tend to refuse media requests for interviews.

Some outspoken solicitors have experiencedthe more intimidating tactics of the pressure group. The buildings of the Parker Bird law firm in Huddersfield were stormed this year by more than 15 members of F4J, who graffitied the walls. They presented Karen Woodhead, the head of family law, with a golden petrol can, which they claimed represented her firm "pouring petrol on the flames in divorce and childcare cases".

Last summer, David Burrows, who was head of the Solicitors Family Law Association (SFLA), was ambushed by a protest outside his home. Kim Beatson, who chairs the SFLA, said: "They claim they are non-violent but they are becoming increasingly militant."

Other groups formed to support men, such as Fathers Direct and Families Need Fathers, have distanced themselves from F4J. But the group's campaign has also attracted an increasingly extreme element.

After the Commons attack in May, F4J and other groups were hoping that the Government would bow to their demands of automatic presumptions of 50-50 custody in all child access cases. But this was rejected in July, causing Mr O'Connor to warn: "This will just inflame the issue for our members."

He has vowed F4J will continue wit h rooftop protests and security breaches until the law undergoes fundamental reform.


By Maxine Frith

The former wife and the current girlfriend of the Batman protester Jason Hatch gave their verdict yesterday on his high-profile stunt.

As Mr Hatch was released on police bail, Victoria Jones, his former wife and the mother of the two children to whom he is seeking access, went into hiding to escape media attention. She claimed his actions had forced her five-year-old son and six-year-old daughter to miss school, was well as heaping stress on her family. She said in a statement: "We ask the media to leave us alone, not least because of the distress it is causing to the young people in our family, who have been unable to go to school today ... Our family does not wish to and is unable to speak to the press on this matter due to ongoing legal proceedings."

The estranged couple, who live a few streets from each other in Cheltenham, are involved in a bitter battle over Hatch's access.

He claims his former wife refuses to comply with a court order granting him the right to a supervised visit with his children every three months. Since the couple parted in 2001, he says he has only seen his children three times and describes his situation as a "living bereavement".

He is now waiting for a High Court hearing to apply for equal contact with the children. He is supported by Gemma Polson, his current girlfriend and mother of his six-month-old daughter.

She is a member of Purple Hearts, a women's group that supports Fathers 4 Justice. Ms Polson said: "I support what they do but they may not go about it in the right way."

Mr Hatch, who is a national co-ordinator of Fathers 4 Justice, also has another child from a previous relationship.