Separated parents who fail to allow their partners to maintain a proper relationship with their children could be stripped of driving licences or passports, hit with curfews, ordered to do a period of unpaid work or even jailed.
Ministers will today propose a dramatic extension of punishments for breaches of court orders regarding care arrangements amid concern that millions of youngsters are losing contact with absent fathers.
The move is part of the most radical shake-up of the family courts for decades, with a new right to ‘shared parenting’ following family breakdown to be enshrined in law.
Argument: One in five children from a broken home loses touch with the parent that leaves the family home within just three years. (Picture posed by models)
Ministers have decided reform is necessary in the light of heartbreaking evidence that one in five children from a broken home loses touch with the parent that leaves the family home within just three years and never sees them again.
Many more lose contact with a parent, most often with fathers when mothers are awarded custody, as they grow older.
Children’s minister Tim Loughton will announce that the Government is to rewrite the 1989 Children Act, which states that the child comes first in law courts in the UK.
Campaigners for fathers’ rights complain that the courts repeatedly pander to the notion that mothers are ‘more important’ than fathers.
The Government will consult on how the law should be changed, but its preferred option is for courts to be required to ‘work on the presumption that a child’s welfare is likely to be furthered through safe involvement with both parents’.
Unless their welfare is threatened by staying in touch with either their mother or father, children must have an equal right to a proper relationship with both, ministers say.
The move is designed to ensure that the parent who moves out of the family home – normally the father – cannot be cut out of their children’s lives following an acrimonious separation.
Ministers say they also want to ‘put a rocket under the courts’ to ensure that parents who flout court orders about access or care arrangements are punished.
Courts are to be told to deploy existing but rarely-used sanctions more often, including fines, unpaid work or imprisonment.
The Government is also considering giving them new powers to withhold passports or driving licences and order curfews requiring an offending parent to remain at a specified address between certain hours.
‘We need to clarify and restore public confidence that the courts fully recognise the joint nature of parenting’
‘Parents must understand that enforcement action is available and will be used where necessary to ensure… contact decided for the benefit of the child,’ the Education Department’s consultation paper says.
Mr Loughton said: ‘Our starting point is that we want most parents to resolve disputes out of court, wherever possible – that’s why we are investing in and promoting family mediation services and other support to help parents reach agreements in their child’s best interests.
‘But we must improve the system where court cannot be avoided – where disputes are intractable or complex or children’s welfare is at risk.
‘We need to clarify and restore public confidence that the courts fully recognise the joint nature of parenting.
‘We want the law to be far more explicit about the importance of children having an ongoing relationship with both their parents after separation, where that is safe and in the child’s best interests.
‘Both parents have a responsibility and a role to play in their children’s upbringing’: Deputy PM Nick Clegg
‘Where parents are able and willing to play a positive role in their child’s care, they should have the chance to do so. This is categorically not about giving parents equal right to time with their children – it is about reinforcing society’s expectation that mothers and fathers should be jointly responsible for their children’s upbringing.’
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said: ‘Both parents have a responsibility and a role to play in their children’s upbringing and we want to make sure that, when parents separate, the law recognises that.’
The Government’s announcement overturns the main finding of a family justice review, conducted for the Government by businessman David Norgrove, which was published last November.
It concluded that giving fathers shared or equal time, or even the right to maintain a meaningful relationship with their children ‘would do more harm than good’.
The review for the Ministry of Justice was branded a ‘sham’ that dramatically undermined David Cameron’s pledge to be the most family friendly government in history.
The proposals sparked a Cabinet revolt, led by Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith and Mr Clegg, who insisted the law must be amended to strengthen fathers’ rights.