Wednesday 23 October 2019

Men will only get equality in custody cases when women face some hard truths

'Fathers go to court with the idea that their cases will be dealt with fairly but often find a legal system they claim doesn’t want them to be too involved in looking after their children' (stock photo)
'Fathers go to court with the idea that their cases will be dealt with fairly but often find a legal system they claim doesn’t want them to be too involved in looking after their children' (stock photo)
Lorraine Courtney

Lorraine Courtney

The gatecrashing of the Rose of Tralee by a Fathers4Justice protester was a misguided way to go about making a point. That is not to say there are not real issues around fathers' rights.

Unmarried and divorcing dads get a very bad deal in Ireland when it comes to traditional custody arrangements. Fathers go to court with the idea that their cases will be dealt with fairly but often find a legal system they claim doesn't want them to be too involved in looking after their children. As a result, they too often come away with limited access rights.

We know this thanks to Dr Roisin O'Shea. The family law researcher observed 493 judicial separation and divorce cases in 2010, which are ordinarily held in private. But she couldn't find a single case where the wife was ordered to pay maintenance for children or a spouse, and had only seen the courts order joint custody in two cases.

We know that in most cases after divorce, child custody is given to the mother. We know that even though men are given access rights, some exes flout these visiting rights, and the father goes back to court time after time. We also know that some fathers can't afford to keep on fighting expensive legal battles and eventually become another sad statistic: one of the 40pc of fathers pushed out of their children's lives .

Dr O'Shea is currently running the means-tested Family Mediation Project with Dr Sinead Conneely, a Waterford Institute of Technology law lecturer. It's aimed at District Court level disputes between parents, and most of the cases that come to the project are active court cases in the South East region.

"In relation to unmarried fathers, the societal presumptions are still reflected in most court orders - that is, that the mother should be the primary carer and the father ends up with reasonably limited access to the child or children. An 'every second weekend and one evening a week' access order is still common," she says.

The Child & Family Relationship Act 2015 was supposed to solve unilateral cessations of access and enforcement. "I am not seeing great awareness of the provisions of the Act. The primary reason fathers engaged in mediation in our pilot project was because they had little or no access to their children.

"This is a very old District Court dance of cross applications, money and parenting, all heard together - where I believe that parenting and the best interests of the child should be a standalone issue. The Convention of the Rights of a Child states that where a child wishes their views to be heard, the court, or indeed the mediator, is obliged to do so. Children should be able to speak directly to a judge, and again international research shows that where this happens it impacts on the outcomes. However, we currently have no mechanism for children to have those views heard in our courts."

Fathers' rights are a very important feminist issue. Getting men more involved in parenting is essential if women are to achieve full equality. As Gloria Steinem said: "Women are not going to be equal outside the home until men are equal in it."

Women need to remember this when they break off relationships with their co-parent and stop him seeing his child.

If there is an unfair bias in our legal system towards female carers, it probably comes from stereotypes about women being family-oriented and men not being nurturing or caregiving enough. Tackling this stereotype would be good for everybody.

We still have a fairly 'patriarchal' judiciary. The number of female judges has almost tripled in the past two decades here but women still only make up 33pc. What nobody asks is what percentage of male judges have personal experience of sharing the responsibility of parenting.

Where a relationship breaks down because something horrible happened, it might be okay to try to shut off the father.

When you break up because your marriage has simply broken down the worst thing you can do to your child is to take their father away from them.

Our legal system doesn't stop mothers behaving badly. While judges have the power to impose a prison sentence on mothers who persist in breaches of the orders they've imposed, judges know that it probably isn't in the interests of the children to send the mother to prison for any time at all. So there just isn't any incentive there for women to properly comply with court orders.

If you deprive children of their father, bitch about him, ignore him, that's long-term emotional abuse. It is criminal behaviour and we need to get tough on it. Until we seek legal reform, transparency, and a user-centred legal system that actually punishes women who don't comply, we're all guilty of that abuse.

Irish Independent

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