Yvonne Roberts: Listen to Bob, patron saint of divorced dads

Divorced fathers may at last be granted proper access to their children
Click to follow

Sir Bob Geldof has long been publicly acknowledged for his ability to work miracles, but even he might be surprised at the speed with which one of his most ardent wishes may be about to come true: a radical improvement in fathers' rights in the courts.

In the aftermath of his own divorce from Paula Yates, the mother of his three daughters, Geldof's access to his children was highly restricted. Once he was successful in winning custody - still rare for a father - he spoke of his outrage at the way he was treated with "contempt, suspicion, disdain and hostility" by the legal system simply because he had fought to remain a part of his daughters' lives. The responses he received from men who had found themselves in a similar state of unwanted exile filled 70 bin-bag liners.

Last week, Geldof was championing the cause again, this time on the publication of an academic book, Children and Their Families, to which he has contributed a powerful polemic. "The fact that, as a father, you are forbidden from seeing your children except at state- appointed moments is by definition unreasonable," he writes. "The law is profoundly flawed. Its laughable pretext of gender neutrality and impartiality must be removed and the true face of bias, discrimination and prejudice fully displayed."

He goes on to suggest, among other measures, a "mandatory arbitrator" before a dispute is permitted to go to court. Coincidentally, in the same week, a report by the organisation New Approaches to Contact (NATC), advocating precisely that, as well as a number of other proposals, was delivered to the Department for Constitutional Affairs, responsible for changes in the legal system. The report, which includes the voices of a range of family law professionals, makes the case for a blueprint for the family courts, adopting measures that have proved highly successful in Florida since the mid-1990s. With around 80,000 parents a year in the UK initiating divorce proceedings, which can drag on for up to 18 months before even the first hearing is conducted, reform is long overdue.

The report, and its request for a £250,000 pilot project early next year, has the strong and influential support of Mrs Justice Bracewell, a senior family court judge. "It would be incomprehensible if the pilot project did not receive official sanction," she writes. "It would achieve savings in money and court time; it should produce much better outcomes for parents and children."

The law has slumbered for too long on the issue of fathers' rights in divorce cases. To give one not untypical example: a father fought for six years to see his daughter. He already had a son from a previous relationship, and he and his ex-partner had agreed to alternate weekends. The mother of his daughter, however, objected and continued to fight through the courts. He had no right to question the welfare reports on his alleged unsuitability as a parent, nor appeal against the decision of the court which permitted him only one hour a week of supervised access while forbidding him to bring the child's grandmother or half-brother to the visit. Eventually, he was allowed alternate weekends and now, three years later, he and his ex-wife co-operate "reasonably well" on the rearing of a teenager.

Men who have grown understandably bitter reel off the reasons why access has been denied or restricted - many of them to do with highly subjective decisions on what makes an adequate parent. For example, he doesn't dry the children properly after taking them swimming; he keeps them up too late on school nights; he doesn't seem himself (unsurprising after the fracturing of a family). Minor "normal" flaws which, taken together, are enough to condemn a man to a severely rationed life with his offspring.

Some mothers will, of course, have good grounds for objecting to contact but, in many cases, consciously and unconsciously, the child becomes a means of further adding to the rubble that was once a relationship.

Research last year, conducted by the University of East Anglia, showed that, following divorce or separation, resort to the law and the adversarial process generally makes things worse, adding considerably to a child's distress. We know from a number of studies (and common sense) that a child who maintains links with both parents in a relatively harmonious setting grows up better adjusted and more successful than those who live in a state of permanent warfare.

In Florida in the 1980s, the judiciary decided to try to help bring this about. It consulted widely and overhauled its system, instituting "therapeutic justice", based on the twin premises that children's interests always come first and that the law should do no harm. The result was that all but a tiny minority of cases are now satisfactorily resolved long before they can reach court.

"Predictability is the cornerstone of democracy," explained Judge John C Lenderman, a Florida circuit judge who helped to implement the changes, at a conference on the subject last year. As a result, any potential litigant knows that if she resorts to the courts in Florida, unless there is genuine cause for concern, the non-resident parent will be granted access at least every other weekend and one evening a week.

In addition, a couple has compulsory mediation and parenting classes. This, says Lenderman, is not to teach them how to be good parents, but to behave like grown-ups who must refocus their attention on the needs of the child and the different challenges that come with a restructured family.

Florida courts act speedily, within weeks rather than months, as happens in Britain. They insist on an advocate to present the child's views. The system also offers ancillary help to parents, for instance, if there is substance abuse. Or, if the father lacks qualifications and therefore a job, it will help with retraining. If domestic violence has been an issue, the safety of the child and mother are paramount. A triage system operates so that a case which is particularly complex and intransigent, even after crisis mediation, is given priority by the judges.

The first aim, however, is positive early intervention to avoid a court hearing, followed by agreements that are adequate enough for adults and children - in spite of the hurt and recriminations - to avoid "bungee cases", which keep coming back because contact breaks down or is never permitted in the first place. Then there is encouragement. "We have done what we can to take some of the vindictiveness and meanness out of the divorce process," says Lenderman. "Our efforts, to a great extent, are directed at encouraging parents to assume their rights and responsibilities from the start."

Under Florida law, non-resident parents who refuse to pay child support - mainly men known as "gaddy daddies" - are jailed. "Those fathers do not have access to their children as a consequence of their own actions," Lenderman says. Child support is expected as soon as separation occurs. Mothers who are adamant that the father will not have contact when there is no valid reason for their refusal also face the possibility of imprisonment. One advantage of the predictability of the courts - insisting on liberal visiting rights - has meant that such penalties are imposed extremely rarely.

Change is a slow process in the law but perhaps, belatedly, with a little more oratorical help from Sir Bob, we will reach a tipping point. In New Zealand, for instance, early intervention and mediation have reduced contested cases by a staggering 90 per cent. Of course, it is not always a case of happy-ever-after for the children; but, still, once parents know that the courts expect them to lay down their arms, then the experience of New Zealand and Florida tells us that a new cultural mindset develops. It is one in which parents realise that, while they may live apart, for the sake of the children the family has to continue.