Judge Appleby QC, sitting at Leicester, made history by sending Mrs Beverley Cox to prison for a week for disobeying an order that her son should see his father. Previous attempts to fine or imprison parents who obstruct access have been overturned by the Court of Appeal, but this appears to be the first one to be upheld.
Press releases on the case emphasised that courts are faced with mounting criticism that they are unwilling to enforce the orders they make. It was heralded as a courageous decision, and one which shows the growing importance which courts place on access. Admittedly it was a drastic measure, but hopefully it will benefit some of the 80,000 children a year who currently lose all contact with their fathers after marriage breakdown.
The CWO - a Mrs Plang - investigated and reported that the mother refused to meet the father and was resolutely opposed to access. The report suggested supervised access and concluded with the statement:
"It is difficult not to form the impression that Mrs Cox is simply being 'bloody minded' and deliberate in what have been her successful attempts to stop access."Mrs Cox consented to three access orders in all, but little or no access occurred. The orders contained built-in reviews, ensuring that Mr Cox could return to court when problems arose.
The judge referred to the mother's failure to co-operate, and said that she had demonstrated clearly that she wished to thwart access. He said:
"There is nothing said of the father which should cause the court to say that he should not see his child. The only thing which could harm the child is not seeing his father. I would much prefer the respondent to agree access but since she will not make that choice I am left with no alternative but to commit her for seven days forthwith"The Court of Appeal was asked to consider the mother's feelings, feelings which must be reflected to some extent on the happiness of the child. But Mr Justice Hollings was satisfied that:
"This is a mother who is determined, hook or by crook, for a bad reason to deprive a child of access to his father."The ruling recognises the need for children to have a meaningful relationship with both parents. For too long custodial parents have been allowed to flout the orders of the court and inflict lasting damage on their children. Given the interest of members and solicitors in this case, we can look to many more access orders being enforced in this way.
We have tried to contact Mr Cox, but to no avail. We understand that Mrs Cox has been to prison again, but we cannot establish if Mr Cox had access while she was inside or at any other time.
If Mrs Cox had not consented in the first place, there are few judges who would order access to a child where there had never been any contact with the father. The Court of Appeal certainly does not favour such access.
The Access Orders contained a built-in review, setting a date three months hence for a return to court to review the arrangements. This is something which SPIG recommends, because not only does it provide for monitoring of access, but it also prevents the non-custodial parent being cast in a bad light by having to apply to court soon after the making of an order.
Sir John Balcombe addressed this issue in his keynote speech at a public meeting in 1988.
ENFORCEMENT OF ACCESS ORDERS
The Court of Appeal decision to uphold the imprisonment of a custodial parent who obstructed access is both courageous and historic (see C v C (Access Order: Enforcement) reported in this issue at p.220)
Admittedly, it is a drastic measure, but one which reflects the growing importance which the courts are placing on access. No longer will custodial parents be able to flout access orders with impunity - a matter addressed by Balcombe LJ at a public meeting in 1988.(see  Fam Law 154).
Hopefully the decision will benefit the estimated 80,000 children a year who lose contact with one parent (generally the father) after separation and divorce. One wonders what the outcome would have been had the welfare officer not decided to speak out about what she saw as the mother's 'bloody mindedness'.
Last updated - 10 January 1997