A month ago, David Cameron made a speech on father’s day saying, “We need to make Britain a genuinely hostile place for fathers who go AWOL. It’s high time runaway dads were stigmatised, and the full force of shame was heaped upon them. They should be looked at like drink-drivers, people who are beyond the pale.”
The speech was widely reported in the press, with Cameron’s spin doctors saying that the Prime Minister was putting out a new and brave message of personal responsibility.
As someone who represents both fathers and mothers in private family disputes about residence and contact, the intervention seemed all wrong to me.
No doubt, there are many immature fathers out there who could do with a healthy dose of self-awareness. In one case I represent a mother of several children. Numerous reports suggest that she is a brilliant parent, despite the failure of any of three fathers to offer her any practical assistance at all. The father of the two youngest children is applying for residence on the basis that he may have a job in the future, and he may get a one-bedroom flat in the future, and that he would be a more suitable parent for residence as the mother’s new boyfriend has various convictions (of no greater seriousness than the father’s own).
The father has failed to attend any contact session since the case started and the application is crying out to be dismissed, as it should be soon.
But compare this with another father I represent, who earlier this year took his baby from the shared home on the breakdown of the relationship, moving 150 miles to be with the paternal family, and now seeks residence. I had seen little of the papers before the case started, and was nervous that the client’s case would be hopeless.
The father brought the baby to court. He cared for her and changed her, without breaking sweat. She was well clothed, well supplied with baby food and content.
The mother asked to spend an hour with the baby, while we waited for the case to be called on, which was agreed. She was anxious, angry with the child, and had no ordinary skills to calm the baby when she became hungry. The mother also had difficulty changing the baby. The Mother is on medication for a (very minor) psychiatric illness, and watching her engagement with the child was like watching any ordinary parent doing their best through a fog of distraction and confusion.
My involvement with the case ended after the first hearing, as the hearing was far outside London, and would clearly require the involvement of local counsel.
That said, just watching the parents was a helpful reminder that private family disputes should never be about “men” versus “women”, but the interests of the child.