Our children’s expert discusses new parenting laws on BBC sofa
Kate Banerjee, head of Jones Myers’s children’s department, was on the sofa at BBC Breakfast this week discussing controversial changes to family law to encourage and improve parental involvement following divorce.
Shared parenting is a key element of the Children and Families Bill, due to become law this year, with ministers keen to strengthen the law so that children have a relationship with both parents following separation or divorce.
Although fathers’ groups have broadly welcomed the new bill, there are some concerns about how workable the shared parenting clause is. Might it detract from the principle that the interests of the child must always come first? Will parents have to give up full-time jobs to stay at home and mind their children?
So what does ‘shared parenting’ mean and how might this new legislation work in practice?
Shared does not mean equal time
There is confusion about what the new law means and whether we actually need more legislation – most parents already have equal legal rights in relation to contact with their children following divorce.
Shared parenting does not mean a 50:50 split with children spending half the time with mum and the other half with dad. It is about quality time with children and the overarching principle that both parents should be involved in the upbringing of their children wherever possible.
One of the biggest concerns about the new legislation is that children will be forced to spend time with a parent who is violent, a drug user, an alcoholic or who is emotionally unstable.
In family law the welfare and safety of the child is always paramount – and this will continue to be the case. What’s being proposed is an amendment to the Children’s Act to enforce the concept of shared parenting only if it’s safe for the children and in their best interests.
Lessons from Australia
When Australia amended its family laws in 2006 to include the concept of shared parenting it opened the floodgates to more court applications as families tried to work out the practicalities of meaningful relationships. However, Australians are now beginning to see the benefits of shared parenting – particularly as people understand that it is about quality rather than quantity of time with their children.
There is a real fear that the UK will see a similar surge in litigation – and a time when legal aid is being withdrawn for family and divorce cases so there is a concern that parents may try to represent themselves in court.
Experienced family lawyers will be encouraging parents to use collaborative options, such as mediation, wherever possible to reach agreement on sharing care of their children. Also, to recognise that arrangements may need to be more flexible as children grow older.
On a positive note, shared parenting moves us on from the idea that fathers go out to work and mothers stay at home to mind the children. Some courts and judges have been slow to move forward from this old fashioned stance and a more modern approach, recognising equality in relationships and parenting is to be welcomed.
I hope that the new law gives parents a clear message about the benefits of both being involved in bringing up their children wherever possible.