Family justice, Iraq and others

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End to court secrecy would expose fathers' posturing

End to court secrecy would expose fathers' posturing

Sir: The fathers' lobby has proved once again how successful its tactics are.

At a parliamentary committee looking at family justice on Tuesday, three senior judges gave evidence to a well-briefed group of MPs on a number of issues including protecting mothers from domestic violence, delay in the courts, and the secrecy of the system, yet the Independent report (10 November) devotes itself to reporting only about the Fathers4justice campaign, its insistence that the courts are biased against men and the headline-grabbing stunts it has carried out.

The President of the Family Division refuses to meet with them, but she cannot ignore the huge impact this lobby is having on the perception of the average person that our family courts are not fair. In fact, as a solicitor for more than 25 years, who also sat for nine years as a part-time family judge, I know that the judges are well trained and do everything they reasonably can to ensure children have a meaningful relationship with both parents after family breakdown.

If the President will support, as she says she does, a relaxation of the archaic present rules, which make the work of the family courts secret, she could at a stroke bring a greater transparency to the system and expose the posturing and inaccuracy of the fathers' lobby. A system which promotes the welfare of the child but allows its workings to be openly scrutinised is urgently needed. This issue deserves wider reporting.


Sir: Nicki Household (letter, 9 November) states quite rightly that children need a stable family home and that it is bad for them to flit back and forward between parents.

My 11-year-old son stays with me every other weekend and every Thursday night. He also spends half of all school holidays with me. He has very recently said that, apart from the holidays, he feels unsettled under this arrangement and that he would much prefer to spend alternate weeks with me and my ex-wife.

I don't agree that under a 50-50 arrangement there is a risk of neither parent giving the job their full commitment. On the contrary, if I have not seen my son for a week, I am sure I am much more focused on him than I would be if he lived with me full time - absence makes the heart grow fonder. If a child is spending only small chunks of time with one parent, that relationship is bound to be perceived by the child as more special. My son says he looks forward to coming to see me, but he doesn't look forward to going back to his mum's precisely because he spends so much of his time there.

Unless there is a very good reason to the contrary, 50-50 shared custody should be the norm, and any parent who denies this where there is no good reason risks nurturing deep-seated resentment in their children that is likely to come back and bite them when the children are older.
Name and address supplied

The unanswerable questions on Iraq

Sir: So Johann Hari can't see any way to hold elections unless Fallujah is reclaimed (Opinion, 10 November).

What is this arrogance of the British to decide that the Iraqis need democracy? Gertrude Bell was writing papers for the British Government in 1919 on how to govern Iraq. After the British Army, led in the vanguard by the Black Watch, had cleared the Turks of out Baghdad, the British deputy political officer summed up the problems of 1920 succinctly. "That it was impossible to create a new sovereign Mohammedan sate ... the warlike Kurds numbering half a million will never accept an Arab ruler. The Shia, numbering 1 3/4 million would not accept Sunni domination ... and no form of Government has yet been envisaged, which does not involve Sunni domination."

Finally in 1921 Bell was able to announce: "We've got our King crowned." That led to a rebellion which was only put down by the RAF dropping gas bombs on villagers. The monarchy led to military rule. This led to dictatorship of a country created by drawing lines in the sand by a bellicose young Briton and two archaeologists.

Hari poses a question which he can't answer. That is because it is the question that is wrong. What are Sunnis supposed to vote for - domination by Shias? What are Shias to vote for when they know they will not be allowed a fundamentalist Islamic state linked to Iran? What are Kurds to vote for - a Kurdish separate state dominating the headwaters of the Tigris, which neither the Turks nor Arabs will tolerate?

If we go on posing Hari's question, more cities the size of Cardiff are going to be reduced to rubble, and more and more parents are going to be looking down at their children bleeding to death.

London NW3

Reasons not to smack

Sir: Oh, how I agree with Katharine Evans (letter, 8 November). When I debate the case against the physical punishment of children with others, people often argue that young children do not have the mental capacity to understand reason (as to why they should not run in the road, for example) and a quick slap does the job. Would these same people suggest that if my wonderful mother, who suffers from Alzheimer's disease, were to do something equally dangerous I could slap her, because her ability to understand is questionable?

When I am with my Mum I see it as my solemn duty to keep her safe, and when my children were young I felt the same. Surely children should learn that they must not run in the road or touch the oven because it is dangerous rather than because they will "get a smack" if they do.

Grantham, Lincolnshire

Sir: I am growing increasingly weary of some of the "arguments" being used in the smacking debate. Attempting to justify an outright ban on smacking on the grounds that children should be given the same legal protection as adults seems completely absurd.

If we follow through this premise to its logical conclusion, then parents who send their children to their bedrooms should be prosecuted on charges of false imprisonment, teachers who confiscate a child's possessions in class should face charges of theft, a child given immunisations that they don't want should have every right to sue the doctor for assault and toddlers strapped in a car seat and driven to nursery would be obvious victims of kidnap. The absurdity of the argument beggars belief.

I am, by the way, opposed to smacking; I simply fail to see how any form of logical consistency could be maintained if legislation banning smacking were to be passed.

Sandness, Shetland

Van Gogh murder

Sir: In general Yasmin Alibhai-Brown's article (4 November) on the murder of Theo van Gogh was well-informed and sensible. However, her criticism of Prime Minister Balkenende for linking the murder with that of Pim Fortuyn was rather odd. The two murders were both examples of political killings, a phenomenon which had been absent in the Netherlands in peacetime for hundreds of years. One appears to have been carried out by an animal rights activist and the other by a Jihadist. Although we have had a number of other spectacular murders in the last few years their victims were mainly in the drugs world and the general view was they were no great loss. However, murders of politicians or media figures are very unwelcome.

As for the political tasks related to the van Gogh murder, these are fourfold. First, to prevent further Jihadist attacks. Secondly, to integrate the Moroccan community better into Dutch society. Thirdly, to reassure the majority community that their civilised society is not being undermined by a fifth column. Fourthly, to draw the attention of politicians and media personnel to the fact that attacks on Islam of the Hirsi Ali/van Gogh type offend Muslims and that we would be better off without them. Some progress is being made in these directions, and although the situation is difficult it is not as hopeless as Yasmin Alibhai-Brown suggests.

Professor M ELLMAN

Language problems

Sir: As a former language graduate now living abroad for almost 20 years I read with interest your two articles (5 November) concerning the fall in language teaching (and the apparent fall in interest in modern languages) and the record number of Britons moving abroad. Are we so sure that when emigrating to a non English-speaking country everyone should be expected to understand and speak our own mother-tongue without us having to bother to learn theirs?

Furthermore quite how a shift from learning foreign languages in schools to subjects such as "business studies ... and tourism" should exclude learning at least the basics of one foreign language is beyond me.

Ferrara, Italy

Darwin's beliefs

Sir: It was a surprise to see the letters (2 and 6 November), especially from well-known science writer John Gribbin, saying Darwin was an atheist. This seems to have become a popular myth.

Late in life Darwin stated that he had "never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of God" and that "agnostic would be the most correct description of my state of mind". In 1881, the year before his death, a fraught argument with several German atheist scientists in London saw Darwin pitching in against them.

Victorians who lost belief often became agnostics rather than atheists. The common dichotomy was not belief/disbelief but faith/doubt. Darwin's close friend Thomas Henry Huxley coined the term "agnostic"; Herbert Spencer became an agnostic. It didn't mean what it does now, a religious "don't-know"; it meant one who believes positively that such things can't be known to humans.

This also strongly refutes the view of some, that Darwin resisted atheism solely to reassure his wife Emma. But Emma was an unswaying evangelical Christian, and Darwin had already rejected the Christian explanation, which would have mattered to Emma as much as anything else.

Horton Kirby, Kent

Sir: Dr Priestley (letter, 6 November) is wrong to state that Hitler and Stalin had "one thing in common", their atheism - they had many more than that. For instance, they also both had a religious upbringing and a penchant for uniforms, both sported moustaches and clung to power using belief systems which brooked no opposition (not unlike religions given half a chance).

The fact is that these commonalities are merely incidental to their being mass murderers, whereas faith in a god can be a reason for cruelty and murder, as witnessed in the crusades, witch-burning and "pogroms". As a pacifist atheist, I rather resent being lumped together with power-crazed psychopaths even uniform-wearing mustachioed ones.

But in any case, as far as I am aware, Hitler lived and died a Christian. "Almighty God bless our arms ... judge now whether we are deserving of our freedom; Lord bless our battle" ( Mein Kampf vol II ch 13). Funny thing for a non-believer to write!

Newmarket, Suffolk

Sir: Instead of having to listen to atheists, agnostics and religious people arguing about their three positions, as in recent letters, why can we not create an operational test? Have a poll of citizens' experiences of having these three classes of people as relatives, neighbours or colleagues. On a "by their fruits ye shall know them" basis we could then tell which were safest to live with. If I were to be polled, I should be forced to say that I have suffered most discomfort from "practising" Christian people. Sad but true.

Ingleby Barwick,
Stockton on Tees

Undignified exit

Sir: The death of Yasser Arafat could well prove to be the greatest impetus for peace in the Middle East for years. The terrorist turned failed statesman has failed to achieve anything for his own people except misery and poverty. Even in his dying days, the entire affair around him - from the power struggles, to the financial bickering, and even to the farce as to whether he was alive or not, has been typical of the entire state of affairs.

New Barnet, Hertfordshire

French imperialism

Sir: French kill 20 and wound 200 unarmed civilians on the Ivory Coast and no outrage. Where is Kofi? Where is Europe demanding that this be taken to the UN? Where is the EU? French unilateralism? The hypocrisy is palpable.

Colorado Springs, Colorado, USA

Glasgow gangs

Sir: Your piece "BBC accused of staging fight for gang documentary" (10 November), reports that Glasgow City Council had made a formal complaint to the BBC about the No Go Britain documentary and adds that the BBC had not yet issued a reply. A response from the Deputy Director General was issued on 8 November, which we trust the council has since received. The response provides a detailed refutation of the completely unfounded charge. We stand by the programme, which will be shown again this Saturday.

Executive Producer, Current Affairs

Editor, Six O'Clock News
London W12

Little Englanders

Sir: Steven Uncles' suggestion for an English Parliament (Letter 8 November) sounds a good idea to me if it means we can get rid of the Celtic politicians. Alas, we would still have John Prescott.

North Molton, Devon