skitt | 29.05.2003 11:38
It was when Ed Driver’s two children stood at the door of their mother’s house and announced they didn’t want to come with him, that he realised he was truly losing the battle. That was 1990: six years earlier, when he and his wife had split up amid considerable acrimony, she had told him he would never see his children again, but the court had granted him access. Now, however, the court order seemed worthless as his children, aged ten and seven at the time, stood at the door miserably, wringing their hands.
He realised then, he recalls, "that my ex-wife was winning the brain-washing battle. The children were stressed, I was stressed, the only one who wasn’t stressed was my ex, because she was getting exactly what she wanted."
Driver, who now lives outside Crieff, has been divorced a second time since, but is now in a long-term relationship. His chequered experiences with divorce and access rights haven’t left him embittered against women, he insists, but they have certainly left him with an enduring lack of faith in what he sees as a system that fails to enforce its own court orders and which favours the rights of mothers over fathers in gaining access to children in severed relationships.
Now he has become the Scottish spokesman of a recently formed direct-action group calling itself Fathers 4 Justice, which has staged some very public protests on behalf of the thousands of men throughout Britain who are denied custody of, or access to, their children in divorce or separation situations. In England its members have lobbied the Lord Chancellor’s offices and demonstrated outside courtrooms and the homes of family court judges.
Reflecting an apparent upsurge of protest from fathers who feel they have been institutionally prevented from seeing their children, some will take part in a demonstration in Glasgow on 15 June - Father’s Day - which Driver is helping to organise. Two days earlier, more than a thousand of its supporters will anticipate Father’s Day at a London demonstration.
"There are some pretty serious issues we hope to tackle," says Driver, now 43, "mainly the fact that so many fathers are losing touch with their children - we estimate about 100 a day across the UK."
He recounts the circumstances of his first divorce as an illustration of what can go wrong. "At that time, 1984, my kids were aged three and one. My ex-wife prevented me from seeing them and it took seven months to get the action through the courts - that’s seven months without seeing my children. Then I was able to maintain limited contact for about six years, but that got less and less."
He lost touch with them completely in 1990, only managing to re-establish contact last year. "They’re 22 and 20 now, and they’ve since expressed to me the effect all this had on them."
A former community worker specialising in homeless children, he is only now coming to the end - he hopes - of a protracted wrangle with the Child Support Agency, which he says was at one point threatening him with jail for failure to stump up £36,000 in support payments. He insists that the agency’s records were faulty and says the sum in dispute is down to around £1,000.
Those assembling in Glasgow’s George Square next month will be dressed in black, "because we’re mourning the loss of contact with our kids. An increasing number of women are coming forward to support what we are saying, but it’s mostly men who are affected.
"There are a lot of support services for women after family break-up, but there aren’t these kinds of services for men. Gingerbread groups and single parent groups tend to be female-orientated. Men just don’t know where to turn."
Does he see himself as blameless in his own messy divorce situation? "Yes. I was awarded contact by the court, over a two-day hearing, and I still have the judgment, which stated that at the end of the day it was in the best interests of my children that they had contact with their father.
"My ex-wife was twice taken back into court to explain herself; she was threatened with jail and with potential reversal of the custody order if she didn’t allow contact."
He believes it was the court’s unwillingness to follow up these threats which enabled his ex-wife to keep his children from him. Like his fellow protesters, he believes that society and its institutions tend to favour the women as a matter of course, when it comes to disputes over access and custody of children: "The reasons for that," he laughs wryly, "are probably lost in history."
The Glasgow gathering on the 15th, organised by Fathers 4 Justice along with the Scottish group Parent Excluded, should be a peaceful affair, Driver says. The London event on the 13th, which the organisers claim will attract as many as 1,500 people, should also be a peaceful demonstration, against CAFCASS - England’s Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Services. But anything could happen.
It was Fathers 4 Justice, after all, which was behind the two coachloads of Santa Clauses who invaded the Lord Chancellor’s department in Whitehall and held a 45-minute sit-in, just before Christmas. In February three of its members were arrested after painting the door of CAFCASS’s Ipswich office purple, and last week two members climbed on to the roof of Plymouth Crown Court and hung up a banner proclaiming it to be "The UK’s worst family court". They have demonstrated outside the homes of English family court judges. And now they are carrying their campaign to Scotland.
Anti-feminist reactionaries? A bunch of lads wanting shot of their CSA payments? Not necessarily: Fathers 4 Justice takes itself and its case very seriously indeed, and its members are prepared to go to jail to make their point that, when it comes to gaining access to children in society’s increasing number of fragmenting families, it is inevitably the male parent who loses out.
The group’s membership currently stands at 1,200 and has been increasing by some 100 people a week since it was launched towards the end of last year, according to its founder and spokesman Matt O’Connor, a Suffolk-based marketing and public relations consultant who says that feelings are running high. "We’ve got an amazing number of grandparents signing up and prepared to be arrested," he says. "We’ve got mothers who are sympathetic, the feeling is so strong."
Following the massed Santas’ sit-in at the Lord Chancellor’s department - where they refused to budge until a senior civil servant, Amanda Finlay, CBE, accepted a large Christmas card bearing the image of the Lord Chancellor portrayed as Scrooge - one Fathers 4 Justice representative, Matthew Mudge, commented: "Fathers have an uphill struggle to get an Order for Contact in the first place. In cases where the mother is determined to sabotage children’s contact with their father, you soon realise that court orders issued by Family Court judges are simply not worth the paper they are written on."
While Scotland has a different legal system, with no CAFCASS as such, and with cases going through the standard courts, things aren’t any better, according to O’Connor.
It was his own divorce proceedings, when he was denied access to his two boys, aged five and seven, for more than a year, which prompted him to form Fathers 4 Justice. "The family courts inflamed an already bad situation," he says - although now, he claims, their mother is "incredibly supportive of what we’re doing".
Earlier this month, his cause was boosted by a widely reported London Appeal Court case of a man whose four-year-old daughter is not allowed even to see his photograph. An earlier hearing had ruled that it was not in the child’s best interests to see her father, a 32-year-old computer engineer, because any contact between the parents made the mother "depressed and anxious".
In the Appeal Court, Lord Justice Thorpe declared that he could do nothing, short of jailing the mother or placing the child in care, neither a course he was prepared to take. And he commented that there was "a problem throughout the family justice system".
"That gave the green light to every recalcitrant mother in this country to effectively say, ‘I find contact between my child and the father upsetting, therefore I will veto it’," says O’Connor. The father in the case, he adds, has since joined Fathers 4 Justice.
In England, the family courts system may have its problems, but Scotland, claims O’Connor, is a haven for English mothers who move north of the Border to avoid giving access to their children. He is backed up in this by Jim Parton, former chairman of the 30-year-old London-based organisation Families Need Fathers, who thinks that "fathers who fight to see their children have a much tougher time in Scotland." Ed Driver, however, reckons this is more likely to be simply "a distance thing, although the legal difference does protract the problem".
Parton adds that FNF’s own membership is currently on a roll, which he sees as a measure of current feeling, "because I don’t think men are great joiners".
England has been experiencing "a real crisis in its family court administration," observes Ian Maxwell, depute director of One Parent Families Scotland, in Edinburgh. However, Maxwell, who is primarily concerned with unmarried parents, sees little difference in attitudes on either side of the Border. So far as unmarried fathers’ rights are concerned, in England, legislation has been passed but not yet enacted, while in Scotland, proposed reforms to legislation show no signs of coming before a parliament still smarting after the Clause 28 row. "In neither country do unmarried fathers have automatic rights, but England is a few inches closer to this," Maxwell says. "Through our work, we know the difficulties faced by unmarried fathers fighting to gain access rights. There is a definite shift in society, as well as in legal circles, but there is a need to tidy up he law."
Any concern his organisation has about legislation, he adds, "is that it must have safeguards to protect anyone in an abusive relationship. We wouldn’t want to see, for example, a violent father gaining automatic access to his children."
Fiona Miller, principal solicitor at the Scottish Child Law Centre, deals with many calls from fathers trying to re-establish their right of contact and, while she doesn’t want to generalise, says: "I do know from comments from unmarried fathers that they just can’t believe that the law doesn’t give them any rights."
Unlike England, there is in Scots law the concept of "parental responsibility", but this applies only to married fathers, giving them rights and responsibilities on an equal standing with the mother in terms of access and decisions on children’s welfare and upbringing. "That’s in theory," says Miller, "but in practice, if the child is living with the mother and she is obstructive about the married father having contact, then, as with the unmarried father, if it can’t be agreed between them he would still have to go to court to prove it’s in the child’s best interests that a contact order be granted."
Back at One Parent Families Scotland, Ian Maxwell has watched the emergence of Fathers 4 Justice, and comments: "I think that making direct protests to individual judges could well have negative rather than positive effects, but an overall awareness-raising campaign, using imaginative techniques, could be good."
What both he and the spokesmen for Fathers 4 Justice dismiss out of hand is the kind of "abhorrent" tactics adopted in Australia by the Melbourne-based vigilante organisation of divorced husbands rather chillingly known as the Blackshirts. Its members have reportedly harassed single women and divorced mothers with doorstep protests, telephone calls, leafleting campaigns and even abduction of children in custody disputes.
Santa sit-ins sound infinitely preferable; parent and child reunions even more so.