Ken Clarke wans of child access plan 'dangers'

 

Justice Secretary Ken Clarke has admitted there are "dangers" to proposals to give divorced and separated fathers stronger rights.

Plans unveiled by the Government would see the law changed to stress the importance of children having contact with both parents.

The move stops short of the guarantee of equal access demanded by some fathers' rights groups.

But it contradicts one of the main findings of the family justice review by former Whitehall mandarin David Norgrove.

Mr Norgrove voiced his "regret" last week that a legal right would be included despite his report warning it could cause "confusion, misinterpretation and false expectations".

Similar changes in Australia led to delays in resolving custody disputes, he cautioned.

Mr Clarke told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "We are stating what I think is the view of most people which is that both parents have responsibilities and rights towards their children and the children are entitled to try and maintain contact with both parents if it's at all possible.

"What we are doing is going to state that principle in the law, because there are far too many people who think it's not being applied - although I do think the courts do apply it and try to apply it in most cases.

"But we are also going to have to draft what we do to avoid all the undoubted dangers in Australia which caused David Norgrove and his colleagues to be hesitant.

"We want to put back confidence, the courts will have proper regard to the position of fathers and the right of the child to have contact with the father, but of course in the end the interests of the child must be uppermost and it isn't always possible."

In a written statement to MPs this morning, Mr Clarke insisted the courts would still decide whether contact was "safe and in the child's best interests".

The new legislation will also make clear that a "meaningful relationship is not about equal division of time, but the quality of parenting received by the child", he added.

Asked at a daily media briefing in Westminster about the issue of legal rights for fathers, Prime Minister David Cameron's official spokesman said: "This was an issue that was considered very carefully both by the Cabinet Committee that looked at this report and in Cabinet a few weeks ago.

"The interim Norgrove report had suggested this as a way forward. Subsequently they went to Australia and looked at the experience there and decided not to recommend it.

"Clearly, there were problems in Australia. As the Justice Secretary was saying, we need to learn from those and make sure we draft the legislation with care."

The spokesman added: "What we are trying to do with all these reforms is look after the interests of children.

"We think that their interests are best preserved by moving to a system which is less adversarial, where more can be done to reach agreement, where the processes are more effective than in the past and where we can make more use of mediation."

Children's commissioner for England Maggie Atkinson welcomed the Government's commitments to placing "the best interests of the child" at the heart of the family justice system.

Ms Atkinson said: "Many children are caught up, through no fault of their own, for months at a time in a system that is hindered by delays and still fails to give them an adequate voice. A statutory six-month time limit on care and supervision proceedings will mean speedier decision-making and resolution for the children involved.

"We recognise the challenge in ensuring that all essential evidence is placed before the court within this timeframe."

And she said: "Any change to shared parenting arrangements must be undertaken in terms of the rights of the child, in accordance with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. In principle it is important, where appropriate, to support a child's continuing relationship with both parents after separation when it is absolutely safe.

"We welcome the Government's confirmation that legislating in this area will focus on parents' shared responsibility for their child and it is not about guaranteeing each parent an equal amount of time with children."

PA

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