The Family Justice Review Panel’s first report moves towards shared parenting, but we still have a way to go

The Family Justice Review Panel recommends enhancing “the regard given to the status of shared parental responsibility” and introducing a statement into the Children Act 1989, reinforcing the importance of the child continuing to have a meaningful relationship with both parents.

Craig Pickering, CEO of Families Need Fathers, said, “The report contains a lot of good ideas, for example on judicial continuity and fast-tracking at least some cases. If it had gone further – especially on a presumption of shared parenting (not the same as a 50/50 split of time spent with each parent) – we would have a family law system that genuinely encourages both parents to play a significant role in their child’s life following separation or divorce.”

We are a long way off understanding how these proposals, if implemented, would work in practice and whether they would achieve an environment where post separation parenting is shared. For example, this week it has been reported that a significant relationship with a father could be maintained over thousands of miles via Skype. Enshrining a presumption of shared parenting in UK law would be a more certain way to achieve the aim of the reforms proposed by the Review Panel.

The proposals rightly focus on changing the culture in favour of shared parenting, by:

·         Removing the concepts of ‘contact’ and ‘residence’, which do not relate to the realities of parenting. This is a huge step forward, but an explicit presumption that shows, as is usually the case, that both parents must be significantly involved in a child’s life wherever appropriate, would be a much better guide to the courts on what the best interests of the child really are. In legal terms, it would flesh out, without compromising, the paramountcy principle.

·         Strengthening judicial continuity, to prevent, for example, 10 judges dealing with one case.  However, we question why it is just in complex cases that judicial continuity is necessary, as we strongly believe it is needed across the board.

·         Helping separating parents to work out their arrangements in the best interests of the child, for example through an online information hub.

·         Giving more weight to parenting agreements.

·         Offering swift action when a court order is breached, so that judgments can be enforced in a way that keeps a child in touch both parents.

·         Information and rapidly-acting dispute resolution promoting shared parenting.

The proposals will need further debate, and leave some unanswered questions, for example how Cafcass will operate within a new Family Justice Service. But on the face of it they are a step forward to promoting shared parenting, even if not a big enough one

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