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Fathers' Rights

Volume 403: debated on Tuesday 8 April 2003

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What recent representations the Lord Chancellor has received concerning the rights of fathers in family law cases. [107459]

My officials and I have regular meetings with groups representing the interests of fathers. As part of the Department's work to ensure safe contact for children and their families after relationship breakdowns, members of fathers and mothers organisations contribute to policy development.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady, but would she consider reviewing the law in this area? An increasing number of articles and reports demonstrate that fathers are concerned about what they view as an inequality in the decisions made. They are also concerned about anomalies in the law, such as the differing treatment of older children in further and higher education, in respect of maintenance and the common law. In view of the sensitivity surrounding such cases, might it not be worth reviewing the law on the respective rights of fathers and mothers, to establish whether the complaints are fair and accurate and to settle the concerns that have been expressed so publicly?

We are well aware that emotions run deep in such cases. It is almost impossible to please every party. Inevitably, the cases that come before the courts are high conflict cases. I believe that we should examine other methods of reducing the conflict. We must remember that the courts will always take a decision that it is in the best interests of the child: that is at the heart of the process of decision-making. However, we could develop parenting plans, in-court conciliation and mediation. [Interruption.] Conservative Members may laugh, but many children are in a difficult position and it is important to take the best decisions for them rather than focus on the point of view of one parent.

Will the Minister reflect carefully on the evidence provided this morning by the president of the family division of the High Court to the Committee on the Lord Chancellor's Department, which is chaired by the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith)? Concern is widespread that fathers are not being treated fairly in family law cases, particularly in respect of the operation of the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service, because social worker reports do not put forward a balanced view between fathers and mothers. Does my hon. Friend know about those concerns, and will she seek to deal with them when she looks at the problem carefully?

I will not only look at, but listen to, the evidence. When the problem was raised this morning, the judges before the Committee on the Lord Chancellor's Department acknowledged the perception, but felt that it did not conform to reality. As to the role of CAFCASS, it can provide alternative means of help. The judges also said this morning that the CAFCASS reports were of high quality and that they did provide fair assessments of the position. The other ways in which it could help include in-court conciliation, and a greater role in mediation and support for contact centres, which can help to ease the difficult problems that families face.