Family court changes comes at glacial pace

Dad's army

“If your partner is reasonable, stay as far away as possible from the court system. They are rife with litigation instead of mitigation. Find a support group and don’t give up, your children need you.”

– John Baker, former chairman of Families need Fathers, speaking on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour.

After five years of the sight of spandex-clad men dressed as comic-book superheroes on motorway bridges, government buildings, even Wimbledon’s Centre Court, campaigners hope that new laws will stem the rising tide of parents denied access to their children.

Activist group Fathers 4 Justice has used humour, pithy punchlines and high-profile stunts to focus the media’s attention on the parlous state of the Family Court, and the unreasonable manner in which one parent, all too often the father, can be denied access to their children.

With family court proceedings taking place in private behind closed doors, the group argued that there is little accountability for the decisions of the courts, a tendency to grant residence to the mother, and insufficient rigour paid to examining claims of abuse, violence or fear.

This week, Fathers 4 Justice’s founder, flamboyant father-of-three Matt O’Connor, announced that after six years he was closing not just the support group but winding up the campaign in order to spend more time with his three sons.

Speaking to The Big Issue, Matt said: “We don’t have the resources or the training to help people who are clinging to the cliff face. We never started it for that, but it evolved from awareness-raising to self-help,” Matt said.

“The final straw for me was Brian Philcox, who killed his children. The headlines spoke about a ‘Fathers 4 Justice link’, as if we were responsible for what he did.”

However, the high-profile posturing of the caped campaigners has led the government at last to turn its attention to some of the more intractable problems of the Family Court.

Some 200,000 parents separate every year leading to around 25,000 to 30,000 single residency court orders, where the child lives at one parent’s home.

In the majority of cases, courts award custody of the child to the mother, and once a routine has been set it is harder for the father to get access.

A common “standard issue” arrangement handed out by the courts is alternate weekends and half the summer holidays, but this falls far short of the time required to build relationships.

Policy officer Becky Sabine from Families Need Fathers, set up over 30 years ago, said: “It is difficult to make up time apart, court cases can take six months or more and that’s a long time in a child’s life. It is important to have quality time, based on mundane things like picking kids up from school, shared mealtimes, parents’ evenings, bedtime stories – not just a few days out.”

Sabine is hopeful that courts will use the new powers under Children and Adoption Act 2006, which comes into force in November, to compel parents to cooperate and create a culture of genuinely shared residency. Officers from CAFCASS, the government agency which prepares reports for judges on the parents and children involved, have also been given an expanded role of mediating and befriending the parents to help in hostile relationships.

Family Law practitioner Miranda Fisher from legal firm Charles Russell said some progress had been made over the last five years.

“The changes that have happened are largely due to Fathers 4 Justice because their efforts have brought it into the spotlight,” she said.

“There has been a shift in the attitudes of the court towards shared residence orders, but though courts have always been sympathetic towards strong and meaningful relationships with both parents, the problem lies in enforcement.”

The lack of effective measures against resident parents that continually block the visiting parent’s access to their children has led to furious criticism of the Family Courts and CAFCAS.

In May, Lord Justice Alan Ward gave the system an unprecedented savaging when ruling that a father have no contact with the daughter he has been fighting to see for 12 years.

Laying blame squarely on the mother, Lord Justice Ward said her “drip, drip drip of venom” had led her daughter to believe false claims that she had been abused by her father – claims rejected in court 10 years ago. As seeing her father only upset her, he could not allow contact.

He said: “The father complains bitterly, passionately and with every justification that the law is sterile, impotent and utterly useless. But the question is: what can this court do? The answer is nothing.

“This is a truly distressing case. It may be typical of many, but in some ways it borders on the scandalous. It is certainly tragic.”

Such cases are termed “intractable hostility” by the courts, also known as Parental Alienation Syndrome. While many thousands of parents whose relationships break down settle their differences themselves, difficult court disputes for the most part arise when parents are blinded to doing the best by their children by their animosity toward each other.

Such hostility can often lead a young child or teenager to become alienated from the non-resident parent after constant exposure to the feelings of the resident parent, for example the delusional beliefs of the mother in the case above.

In part, the courts are to blame as the system encourages an adversarial approach, and judges have been reluctant to punish, arguing that a heavy fine or prison stretch for the mother or father would hardly be in the child’s interest.

Miranda Fisher said: “When people divorce they lose sight of what’s good for the child. We need to help parents to help their children through a divorce, and remind parents of the effects on their children of seeing two people they love ripping each other to pieces in front of them.”

Others have gone so far to say that, with the weight of evidence demonstrating the negative effects of having only one parent in a child’ life, deliberately denying the child access to both its parents is tantamount to child abuse.

A Canadian Judge, John Gomery said: “Hatred is not an emotion that comes naturally to a child. It has to be taught. A parent who would teach a child to hate the other parent represents a grave and persistent danger to the mental and emotional health of that child.”

Mothers Apart from Their Children, MATCH, supports those mothers separated from their children, as both mothers and fathers can use the child to alienate the other. One member, Linda, found her ex-husband blackening her name in the court to keep her away from her children. She said: “He told me that my children would grow up with only bad memories of me and he would make sure that they would hate me so much they would wish me dead. Parental Alienation is real, it is emotional abuse and should be recognised by the law.”

The Ministry of Justice said the new measures would “give the court new ways to help find solutions where there is a serious conflict between parties.”

Sabine from Fathers Need Families said that it “cultural change” is required: “It must become unacceptable for one parent to deny another the right to see their children, in the same way drink driving or domestic violence has become unacceptable.

“A child has two parents and needs them both.”

John Fyfe, 37, came home one day to find his house empty and ransacked, and no sight of his wife and children. Neither the police, nor social services would tell him where they were, but Families Need Fathers helped him to get a court order to bring his wife to court. Over six months, he pieced together the story that his wife had run off with another man by whom she was pregnant, changed her name having run up thousands of pounds of debt and taken their five children with them.

John had asked 42 solicitors firms for help, but as the cheapest was £140 an hour he represented himself, including cross-examining his own wife at the final hearing.

In all, he went to court nine times and saw a different judge on each occasion.

Although he was granted a shared residence order in February, his house was burnt down in an arson attack, leaving him able to see them only every Saturday.

Though he maintains a good relationship with his younger children, aged six, nine, 11 and 15, he has not spoken to his eldest son since.

He said: “She used the children to shield her from the law, from work, and from me. It didn’t matter what I said, or how she acted, the courts would never give me custody.

I completely trusted and loved her, I had no reasons to be suspicious of anything. I’ve completely lost my trust and confidence in women now.”


[This article originally appeared in The Big Issue, September 2008]


Holding out against “transformational government”

Transformational government - be afraid

Six official reviews in as many weeks have been heavily critical of government policies and procedures that led to millions of citizens’ personal details being exposed, published to the internet, or lost.

In response to dozens of incidents in which private information including health records and bank details went missing, the reports’ authors agree on an urgent need for a complete overhaul of how such data is collected, stored and shared in the public sector.

In November the largest ever information loss occurred when two CDs, containing the private details of 25 million mothers and children and seven million bank account details, were sent by post from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. They never arrived.

The Independent Police Complaints Commission investigation into the HMRC loss stated that the agency’s data protection was “woefully inadequate,” and that there was a “complete lack of any meaningful systems, a lack of understanding of the importance of data handling and a ‘muddle-through ethos.’”

A forensic analysis of the events by chairman of auditors Pricewaterhouse Coopers, Kieron Poynter, described it as “entirely avoidable, and the fact that it could happen points to serious institutional deficiencies at HMRC.”

In the months after this blunder, barely a week went by without revelations of further losses: 571 laptops lost by the Ministry of Defence in a decade, including one holding current British troop positions; 20 years of payroll details lost by a Kent NHS trust; 20,000 patient details lost by a London Hospital; confidential police computers dumped at a council tip; millions of driver details lost by the DVLA.

A total of 30 losses from Whitehall alone were reported between November and June this year to the Information Commissioner’s Office, which oversees and upholds privacy legislation.

Calls for change and criticism come from offices including the Home Affairs Committee, the Cabinet Office and the Independent Police Complaints Commission among them.

Justice Minster Michael Wills said last week that: “There is a clear need for radical change in government in how we handle data. We don’t handle data in the same way as we handle money, and I think we should.

“I don’t think anyone wants to see gigantic databases where anyone can go and search. I think the security implications of that are horrendous.”

A report from MPs on the Home Affairs Committee was specific in its demands that: “The Government should give an explicit undertaking to adhere to a principle of data minimisation and should resist a tendency to collect more personal information and establish larger databases.

“Any decision to create a major new database, to share information on databases, or to implement proposals for increased surveillance should be based on a proven need.”

While a Home Office spokesman said that a response to the Home Affairs Committee was due for release later this week, despite the criticism the government and civil service ‘Transformational Government’ project continues, with the express purpose of knowing and storing as much as possible about you.

The Transformational Government Vision Statement released in October states “there are enormous benefits to sharing information” and that the Data Protection Act “must not be used to justify unnecessary barriers to sharing information.”

“Codes of practice,” it continues, “will be to facilitate information sharing, not to add a burden to the data sharing process.”

A re-structured government would see personal details of citizens and businesses routinely shared between government departments. Key parts of this infrastructure are the large government databases that exist or are being prepared in the wings, such as the National Identity Scheme, a database of every citizen in the country, ContactPoint, a database of every child, and the National DNA Database.

James Hall, Head of the Identity and Passport Service which will operate the identity card scheme wrote last year that “increased inter-departmental co-operation will, by its nature, involve sharing more data about an individual between public sector organisations. The National Identity Scheme is being designed to meet that public expectation of improved services and joined-up government.”

Privacy campaigners hold that the government’s demonstrated failure to be able to keep hold of sensitive data is ample proof that Whitehall is incapable of safeguarding the details of our private lives. Such a ‘transformational government’ would be doomed to failure, they say.

As if to back this point, an independent review of the ContactPoint children’s database by auditors Deloitte in Touche in February reported that the system could never be made safe.

It said: “Risk can only be managed, not eliminated, and therefore there will always be a risk data security incidents occurring,” adding that this would arise mostly from the procedures of local authorities and agencies that accessed the database, and for whose child support services it has been created.

The Association of Directors of Children’s Services suggested that “an abuser could be able to access ContactPoint for illegitimate purposes with limited fear of any repercussions.”

With the government’s admission that celebrities and politicians can have their children’s details removed, Terri Dowty, from Action on Rights for Children, Arch, said that this amounted to an admission that it was insecure.

“The Government acknowledges the risks by instituting these protocols on celebrity and vulnerable children,” she said. “But all children are potentially vulnerable.”

Phil Booth, national coordinator of the NO2ID campaign against the ‘database state’ explained: “What the bureaucrats don’t understand is that information security is not the same as data protection, in the sense recognised by our Data Protection Act, which in turn is not the same as privacy.

“The government and Whitehall are determined to see objections to their hoarding of our personal details as only a problem of information security—a technical problem at which they can throw computer hardware and software.

“But the desire for privacy is much deeper than that: it is an emotional, psychological response to the feeling of having your life laid open for others to see. It has nothing to do with efficient public services, and it has not been addressed by the government–in fact it’s been wilfully ignored.”

The most recent report, the government Data Sharing Review written by Information Commissioner Richard Thomas and Dr Mark Walport, director of medical research charity the Wellcome Trust, was released last week.

It recommended that the government’s privacy watchdog, the Information Commissioner’s Office, should be given new powers of spot checks, more stringent penalties and better resources. It also suggested better access to anonymised personal records for medical research purposes.

But speaking only in general terms, it avoided any comment on the National Identity Scheme or ContactPoint, which together represent the largest repository of government-held personal information. Most extraordinarily, while the authors stated that data sharing is “intrinsically neither good nor bad” they suggested that ministers should have powers to remove “legislative barriers to data sharing,” where appropriate.

The Ministry of Justice said that it welcomed the recommendations in the report and had begun assessing what could be implemented, while a Home Office spokesman said that a response to the Home Affairs Committee was due for release later this week.

July saw David Davis MP re-elected in the Haltemprice and Howden by-election with an increased majority of 15,000 after standing on a civil liberties platform. But while Mr Davis is associated most with opposition to the government’s Counter-Terrorism Bill to incarcerate suspects for up to 42 days without charge, the more abstract—but very real—threat to liberty represented by a growing culture of data surveillance still lacks both a prominent poster boy and wider public understanding.

It is hard to quantify the harm that Whitehall’s lax approach to keeping our personal details safe is having.

Certainly some, like Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson, thought the dangers were overblown and published his bank details in his column to prove it.

But after a £500 charity donation was made from his account, he changed his tune. The 25 million families affected by the HMRC scandal may not have had the opportunity to be so blasé.

But tales of misuse of information are all too common: last week, Humberside anti-corruption police investigated reports that officers had searched confidential police records to check out their daughters’ boyfriends. A further seven officers are under investigation after fears that they may be leaking information to known criminals.

In another case, Geoffrey Peck was captured on CCTV in 1995 when, while suffering from depression, he attempted to commit suicide in Brentwood High Street. When the council and newspapers passed published recognisable footage of incident, he argued in the court that his privacy had been breached. The European Court of Human Rights found in his favour in 2003.

And just this week, an investigation by the National Aids Trust found that children as young as four were being discriminated against at school after their HIV status was disclosed.

In one case, a girl who was not even aware of her condition discovered it from a teacher.

What will a ‘transformational’ government look like?

The architects of Transformational Government foresee a future civil service that uses modern technology to store and share records on every citizen, from name and address information to financial, tax, benefits and health records.

As the public sector delivers its services through separate departments, we find ourselves contacting several departments to notify them of the same changes. By enabling data-sharing across Whitehall, the policy’s designers say it will make our lives easier by informing all relevant departments of changes, help cut down on administrative wastage and the potential for fraud.

But while an efficient civil service is a noble aim, public services can be improved without the need to know more about the public, and the proven failure of the government and its contractors like Capita and EDS to deliver massive IT projects that actually work point to the enormous risks dangers of putting all the eggs in a single basket.

For example, the National Identity Register database at the core of the Identity Scheme will contain 50 categories of facts about us, from name and address, biometric fingerprints and photo, to passport, driving licence and NI numbers. It will also contain an ‘audit trail,’ recording each occasion an identity check is made against the register. As the Identity Cards Act requires this for access to public services such as local and central government departments or the NHS at least, this would leave a detailed record of our dealings.

Bringing such wide-ranging information and official identifiers together will prove a magnet for thieves and fraudsters, and with the register at the heart of an information-centric administration that touches millions of public sector workers in central and local government, the NHS and police, the likelihood of loss, misuse, or mishap is huge.


[This article originally appeared in The Big Issue, July 2008]