The rights of fathers

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The fact that a militant fathers' group has staged some dangerous and disruptive stunts, capped by this week's highly irresponsible breach of Commons security, does not mean that fathers are wrong to agitate for more rights. This country has experienced a great deal of social change since the divorce laws were liberalised more than 30 years ago, yet the strong predisposition of courts to give mothers care of the children endures.

The fact that a militant fathers' group has staged some dangerous and disruptive stunts, capped by this week's highly irresponsible breach of Commons security, does not mean that fathers are wrong to agitate for more rights. This country has experienced a great deal of social change since the divorce laws were liberalised more than 30 years ago, yet the strong predisposition of courts to give mothers care of the children endures.

It is likely that children will have spent more time in the care of their mothers before the break-up of the partnership than they spent with their fathers. Such is the reality of family life, even in this age of two-earner couples, equal rights and separate taxation. When this is so, and in the absence of evidence that the mother is negligent, custody will inevitably be granted almost automatically to the mother. The value of continuity in a child's life is not to be scorned.

Where the courts seem not to have caught up with 21st-century reality is in recognising the role now played by many fathers in the lives of their children. This may have come about partly by necessity, because so many more women work, but also because many men want to be more involved with their children than their own fathers were.

Nor can the impact of maintenance orders be left out of account. There was a time when a divorcing father was required to pay alimony to his ex-wife and relatively modest sums in maintenance. More likely now is the surrender of the family house and higher maintenance. While this change has helped redress what was often a financial bias against mothers and children, many fathers feel that a social bias remains - in the assumption that the father pays and the mother has exclusive responsibility for the children.

The base stratagems used by warring spouses are well chronicled, and men can be as effective as women in using a child as a weapon. But custody bestows an advantage. And as maintenance payments have risen and become harder to evade, some fathers understandably ask why they should be paying for the upkeep of children they rarely see. Making maintenance payments dependent on the custodial parent granting access may be too crude a principle. But courts and mediators should surely start from the assumption that both parents have a responsibility to their children and that neither should be shut out of their lives without very good reason.

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