Twelve men, wearing the tight, primary-coloured costumes of American superheroes have just staged a countrywide protest. In Bristol, four of them climbed on to the superstructure of the Clifton Suspension Bridge at 5.30am on Monday, and the bridge was promptly closed to traffic. Four others, similarly attired, scrambled on to motorway gantries in Newcastle upon Tyne. Four more brought traffic to a standstill at the eastern and western borders of London, and were sufficiently seasoned campaigners to be identifiable. Darryl Westell, a drama student from Nottingham, dressed as Superman, climbed on to a gantry overhanging the A40, near the BBC headquarters in Wood Lane. Paul Robinson, an IT consultant from Plymouth, set off in Spider-Man livery to do something similar at the Chiswick-flyover section of the M4. A metropolitan Batman, actually a window-cleaner called Graham Manson, climbed up a gantry looming over the A13 near Canning Town, while Jolly Stanesby, a Devon childminder dressed as Robin, the Boy Wonder, ascended a similar coign of vantage beside the Blackwall Tunnel and unfurled a banner that read: "WELCOME TO FATHERS 4 JUSTICE COUNTRY."
Attentive motorists, newspaper readers and TV watchers might have remembered seeing this phenomenon before. In November last year, David Chick, wearing a Spider-Man suit, had perched in the cockpit of a giant crane near Tower Bridge and seized up local traffic for several days. Months earlier, one Eddie Gorecki got into the morning papers by perching on the roof of the Royal Courts of Justice, dressed in the mask and cape of Batman. In December, a man dressed as Santa Claus had scrambled on to the gantry 30ft above the A40 in White City, and dangled a banner that read: "Children need both parents this Xmas. Hoot your support." He had tied himself to the gantry with a rope and put a noose around his neck - try and arrest me, he had told police, and I'll hang myself.
Two days later, an army of men dressed as Santa Claus descended on the Whitehall offices of Margaret Hodge, Minister for Children, delivering a gigantic turkey and chanting the line, "Get plucked, Minister!", and nominating the hapless parliamentarian "Turkey of the Year".
In the immortally puzzled words of Butch Cassidy, surveying the posse of lawmen on his tail: "Who are those guys?" What does it all mean - the Marvel Comics costumes, the orchestrated gantry stunts, the banners, the Santa outfits, the nooses, the desperate measures?
Who are these people and what are they after? The short answer is that they are members or associates of Fathers 4 Justice, a pressure group that has grown exponentially in just over a year, whose popular support increases with every newsworthy public stunt or outrage (depending on your point of view), and whose demands are as simple as they are passionate. They want to change the terms and language of family law, to reassert the rights of UK fathers to see their children after divorce, and to stop family- court judges from making capricious judgments about "custody" and "contact" when dealing with the children of a failed marriage.
The package of demands can be boiled down to the words "Equal Rights for Fathers", a rallying cry every bit as potent as "Votes for Women" a hundred years ago. Nobody, as yet, has thrown himself under one of the Queen's horses at Aintree. But rumours and threats of suicide arrive in the offices of Fathers 4 Justice (F4J) every week. Instead of chaining themselves to railings outside the House of Commons, the F4J protesters rope themselves to cranes and bridges on arterial roads into the capital, in order to be seen by large numbers of people. Instead of smashing windows and going on hunger strike in prison, like Mrs Pankhurst and her daughters, the organisers stay just about within the law, happier disrupting traffic or disconcerting ministers than facing jail.
How long this will last, though, is uncertain, for Fathers 4 Justice now admits that its campaign has elicited passions among people from outside its organisation, and that public outcry for a change in the law may lead to disruptions undreamt of and unsought for by the organisation.
"It has gone a little crazy," says Matthew O'Connor, the group's founder and spokesman. "We've already got 12 people facing trial in the next few months. There have been police raids on the homes of our members, although Scotland Yard denies this. There is a definite danger of a more militant form of F4J appearing, and soon. I expect to see between 50 and 100 campaigning fathers locked up by the end of the year. It's escalating all the time."
Fathers 4 Justice is campaigning for the rights of fathers to see their children whenever they wish, and to be in a position to make decisions about their lives. As the law stands, fathers cannot do this. "The important thing to realise," says O'Connor, "is that men have no legal rights to their children in this country. Divorced fathers have to apply to a court to be able to see them, at specific times. The court will make you an order saying you can see your children from 10am-4pm, but not outside that contracted period. Effectively, you go from being a hands-on parent to being an excluded parent, or a visiting relative. It's the language of prison, dictating when or where you can see your children." He cites the Department for Constitutional Affairs, with its talk of "the child's best interests" and its official line: "The Government does not believe that a legal presumption to contact would be helpful".
O'Connor, 36, started Fathers 4 Justice in December 2002. It was a personal crusade prompted by his own experience of a "nasty acrimonious divorce, which was inflamed by the adversarial nature of the court case". Meaning?
"In order to prove that one parent was a fit and responsible person to have custody of our two boys, aged seven and six, you had to prove that the other parent was neither of these things. Luckily, I was able to create a situation where my wife and I could step outside that process and find a more or less amicable solution. But in court, I swore to the judge that I'd try, with every fibre of my being, to get the law changed."
A successful design and marketing consultant, O'Connor moved out of London after the divorce, found a farmhouse in Suffolk and planned to start a restaurant. But by then, he had become involved with groups such as Families Need Fathers, "and I'd made a promise to the judge and myself, but, despite Bob Geldof speaking against family law on the Tonight programme in 2002, nothing was happening. I didn't want my children to inherit this wretched system. So, I decided that, rather than put all my money and efforts into the restaurant, I would set up Fathers 4 Justice".
The superhero costume that has given the movement its public image has a double function. "Our campaign has always had a humorous vein - partly to offset the image of the belligerent dad, the malevolent, violent father that permeates what you read about divorced fathers. But also, the costume reflects the fact that every father is a superhero to his children, yet, in some cases, the only time the children will see their father is when he's on the telly or in the papers, dressed as Superman 50ft up a crane or on a bridge..."
Would the nation's womenfolk, regarding so many tattered Supermen scaling engineering works to advertise their cause, regard them as hardly the most reasonable, reliable people to nurture children? "We've had the most tremendous response from men and women. Since the current demonstration started, we've had 20 or 30 complaints and about 600-700 e-mails asking, "How do I join?", and, "Where do I go for help?".
Fathers 4 Justice is fighting an uphill struggle against some shocking statistics. Of the 12 million children living in the UK, three million live in single-parent families. Of these, the vast majority are parented by their mother. Despite the fact that mothers and fathers are equally responsible, legally and financially, for their children, the family courts overwhelmingly (93 per cent of the time) award custody of the children to the mother. An alarming 40 per cent of fathers simply lose contact with their children after two years of divorce. Divorced wives can stop their ex-husbands from seeing their children on a whim. "It goes on all the time," says O'Connor. "A 1998 survey from the DSS showed that 40 per cent of mothers admitted 'thwarting contact' between children and their fathers deliberately. A lot of this is simple gender stuff, about love and hate, and human relationships breaking down. And we've had wives in the group who reveal that husbands can be just as nasty and vindictive about them seeing their children."
In family courts, there is sometimes a shocking lack of understanding. O'Connor cites as a "classic instance" a case that came before the Court of Appeal last year. A father had had a no-contact order made against him, after the mother had said that she found any contact between her husband and her child made her anxious and depressed. The appeal court said that it had no power to overturn the no-contact order. This infamous ruling became public because it was given at the appeal court. Most family-law rulings are kept secret. Judges are not accountable for their verdicts. They have something called unfettered discretion and can invoke Section 97 of the Children Act, which prevents disclosure of any discussion of judgments in newspapers.
Perhaps it is unsurprising, therefore, that the more extreme elements among fathers' group protesters have started targeting judges and court officials directly. Last autumn, a number of hoax bomb warnings were sent to the Child and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass). "It wasn't helpful," says O'Connor. To fall foul of the Anti-terrorism Act, that's all we bloody need." On Monday last, on Merseyside, a group of 15 men with megaphones and placards demonstrated outside the home of Judge Marilyn Mornington, the first of 10 projected confrontations with legal figures who have a hand in family judgments.
Matt O'Connor is alarmed by the growing, grumbling threat of violence, preferring to cite Gandhi and Martin Luther King and their preference for "civil disobedience" and "non-violent direct activism". But their every pronouncement now comes with a warning attached. "We're like Greenpeace for Dads. There's no room in our group for extreme behaviour. But I hear noises about splinter groups. We're trying to keep a lid on things, but there's a groundswell of anger out there and I find it frightening. For 30 years, there's been a steady erosion of fathers' rights. For the Government to have let this situation go unchecked is madness.
"Realistically, what we'd like to see is a bill of rights for the family, for children, mothers, fathers, grandparents. We'd like to see a revolution, with one single minister for family life, and one department for family affairs, instead of the five departments."
There's a curious irony that the domestic detail of family life in modern Britain should have become a battleground, one where the skirmishes are likely to become open war. And something frankly bizarre that this eloquent and courageous man should this week be contemplating the possibility of his own disappearance. "I'm not expecting to be here too much longer," says O'Connor, ruefully. "I think they're going to decide to remove me from the scene, on whatever pretext they can find. But, please God, we will change the law."
The father's side: one campaigner tells his story
My son wasn't born when my girlfriend and I separated. I was 19, she was 18. I was dedicated to the child. I was there for ante-natal scans and discussions about his future. Four months into the pregnancy, she got engaged to someone else. Her parents said I wasn't welcome any more. A solicitor suggested mediators to see if we could talk, but she refused. I hadn't been violent or unsuitable: all she could say was we once discussed termination because I was worried about not being able to support the baby financially. But when she decided to have it, I did all the things an expectant father would do; going to baby shops, buying clothes and boots and presents. But my girlfriend's new man said he didn't want me to see him, and that he would adopt the baby. And she wouldn't face the fact that fathers need to see their children.
It took a year of solicitor's fees to see the baby for one hour. Since then I've seen him a dozen times in 18 months. I tried to see him last Christmas with some presents and was told it was not appropriate, and I had some ulterior motive. I applied to Cafcass, and they took a year to interview me. Then they said: "He's a year old and you haven't seen him, so he doesn't know you." Their report made me look a monster. They said I had an intense desire to love the child, which was wholly detrimental to him. I was told it was inadvisable to say I loved him, because they wouldn't take it as normal. Now when I see him at Cafcass, I have to look through plate glass, like I'm in prison. I'm not allowed to cuddle him.
The final access hearing is in two weeks. I expect them to deny me everything. It is preposterous fathers can be kept from their children, a breach of human rights. But I won't stop until the law recognises that a son needs to see his father.