Education & Family

Separated fathers to gain legal right to see children

Father and son
Image caption The legal change will help fathers gain access to their children

Separated fathers are to gain the legal right to spend time with their children unless they are likely to harm them.

The changes to access laws were announced in a letter to MPs from the Children's Minister Edward Timpson.

The letter says both parents should have the chance "to play a positive role in their children's lives when it is safe and in their best interests".

The 2013 change is seen as unnecessary by legal experts, but welcomed by fathers' rights groups.

The letter states that the government's starting point in the changing the legislation is based on two principles - firstly that the safety of children is paramount, secondly that both parents should be involved in their upbringing.

'Too adversarial'

Mr Timpson writes: "I know from my own experience practising as a family lawyer, that many separating couples feel the system is far too adversarial, with courts seen as creating 'winners' and 'losers'.

"It is vital that both mothers and fathers feel confident that the court will consider fully the benefits of their involvement."

He adds that the absence of an explicit reference to this in the Children Act 1989 "has contributed to a perception that the law does not fully recognise the important role that both parents can play in a child's life.

"We remain convinced that a change to the law is needed to help restore confidence in the family court system."

Legal experts remain unconvinced. A statement from the law society said: "The welfare of children must always come before the rights of parents and no legislation should create or point to a perception that there is an assumed parental right to substantially shared or equal time for both parents.

"While the government's intention to promote co-operative parenting is welcomed, legislation to promote shared parenting is not needed. Current legislation adequately provides the right framework for securing a child's welfare."

Sir Alan Beith, chairman of the parliamentary Justice Committee, has previously warned the proposed legislation risked confusion. Commenting on the announcement, Sir Alan said: "The Justice Committee has looked at the dangers of changing the law which makes the interests of the child paramount.

"The committee is now going to look at the details of the clauses to assess what effect they may have. Shared parenting is very much to be desired, but changing the law in this way could have unintended consequences."

Mr Timpson's letter says the proposed legislative change does not give or imply the creation of any rights to equal time or of how much time is appropriate: "Courts will continue to make decisions based on children's best interests."

The lobby group Families Need Fathers welcomed the announcement.

Chief executive Ken Sanderson said: "This is a very positive move, and will help to ensure that as many children as possible can continue to benefit from a meaningful relationship with both parents following separation and divorce."

The legal changes are likely to come into force next year.

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