Monday, 9 June 2008

What are Fathers for Justice for?

In the inevitable round of media interviews which has followed Fathers for Justice's rooftop protest on Harriet Harman's home, F4J founder Matt O'Connor was asked to name one piece of legislation which his group wished to repeal. Rather than point to anything specific, he instead called for a parents' bill of rights.

That leaves me none the wiser as to what the group is actually calling for. And looking at the group's website doesn't provide much of a clue either. Other than an ill-defined sense of grievance about the family courts system in this country, I couldn't see many specific proposals for change. They may be contained in the group's FAQs, but that's apparently available only to peole who join, which seems a bizarre way of operating.

In his interviews this morning, Mr O'Connor mentioned three areas he believed were wrong: the lack of access to their kids which many fathers experience as a result of decisions in the family courts, the operation of the CSA, and the recent debates over the role of fathers in the Human Fertilisation and Embryology legislation.

On the first of these, it is the case that some men (and, indeed, on occasion some women but they don't get mentioned very often by F4J) do get denied adequate access to their kids and feel a sense of injustice as a result. And there are certainly questions to be asked about the operation of the family courts system, as Lib Dem MP John Hemming has been highlighting in recent months. But issues relating to access and custody for children are notoriously complex and it is rather simplistic to suggest that it is just a case of the courts being biased against fathers.

Indeed, I would suggest that for every dad who feels aggrieved at not getting enough access to their kids, there are probably at least two who have either abandoned their children or are deservedly prevented from having access to them, for instance because of domestic abuse.

It's a similar story when you look at the CSA. Let's not forget that this was set up - with all-party support - to try and get fathers to contribute their fair share towards their kids. This was a noble aim, even if the actual operation of the CSA has been so disastrous that we'd actually be better off going back to more individualised support settlements through the courts. Most of the problems cited with the CSA are ones where fathers feel they've been asked to contribute too much towards their kids' upkeeps - perhaps because of new family responsibilities - which seems rather at odds with F4J's first area of grievance.

And as for Mr O'Connor claiming that the embryology bill outlawed the role of fathers, this is just nonsense. What the debates on the bill were actually about was ensuring that single women and lesbian couples were not discriminated against if they sought fertility treatment. That is completely different from tosh about 'outlawing fathers'.

Mr O'Connor also said that the lack of fathers as role models was having a devastating effect on society, a view which many people will have some sympathy with. But there are some problems with this. Firstly, as noted above, there are many fathers who abandon their children, either because they get a new family or simply because of fecklessness. As I've never heard F4J talk about responsible parenting and the problem of fathers choosing not to be around, I think this tends to undermine some of their other complaints.

And F4J also gives the impression that it believes mothers denying access to fathers is a reason for the increase in crime. Now, for a start, it may be that one reason there is difficulty over access is that the mother may have a new partner and thus there is still a father figure around. But even where there isn't, it's far too simplistic just to blame single parents for an increase in crime. Some single parents cope admirably well, others don't. Single parenthood is just one factor among many - with others including poverty, education, poor housing and substance abuse - which have an impact on whether a child turns to crime.

It seems to me that Fathers for Justice is an organisation motivated mainly by a sense of grievance among men, rather than by any specific policies it wishes to see implemented. I also think there's a streak of misogyny among many F4J activists. And I think its protests manage to alienate more people than it attracts to support the cause. I believe the organisation should have a long hard think about what it is actually for.


Nick Langford said...

The failure of our website to answer the questions you raise has been brought up before, and we clearly need to address it before too many people start providing their own answers as you seem to have done. Almost every comment here is based on the most alarming ignorance (unless you are being deliberately provocative) and I hope it doesn't reflect the views of the general population. My impression is that public awareness of these issues is growing.

I certainly don't have the space here to address every misconception; the truth is available elsewhere if you really want to find it.

No, the FAQs document does not answer your questions, it is a very basic guide for fathers new to the courts. Our document 'Family Justice on Trial' explains the injustice of the court and child support systems more clearly, though it is now a year or so out of date. Both documents are about to be replaced by a much larger (400 page) 'book' released as a PDF, 'The Fathers 4 Justice Handbook'.

If you really want to understand this issue, instead of airing your Lib Dem prejudices, the best book available is Stephen Baskerville's 'Taken into Custody'. It's American, but there is little difference between our two systems. It is more academic and less strident than our publications!

You could also read Mark Harris's book for a very personal insight into one man's battle.

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