We are pleased to note that the paper stresses the importance of families and among other things proposes education programs for marriage, parenthood and also post divorce parenting.
The proposals of the paper are far-ranging, but as our particular interest is in the area of post-divorce parenting and the factors which mitigate against it, we have restricted our comments to that.
We believe that Shared Parenting offers children the opportunity to build up and maintain meaningful relationships with both their parents, and there are a wide variety of parenting arrangements to suit a range of situations, providing for time-splits from 30/70 to 50/50. This overcomes the widespread dissatisfaction of children and parents with the artificiality of traditional contact arrangements - which often relegate one parent to the role of a distant and infrequent visitor.
The underlying philosophy of the Children Act 1989 and the Family Law Act 1996 is that children have a right of regular contact with both their parents and with other people significant to their care, welfare and development, except where this would be contrary to the child's best interests.
Despite this there is a prevalent attitude in some sections of the community that, following separation, the residence parent can set and vary the conditions for contact, and in extreme cases they may see themselves as the "owners" of the child - and contact parents see themselves largely at their mercy. This attitude has developed over a long period and is well entrenched in some areas. It is unlikely that any innovations by Government will be effective unless such attitudes can be radically altered.
We feel that there is a need for a program of community education to reinforce the right of children to have contact on a regular basis with both parents and with other people significant to their care, welfare and development. We consider it important that all sections of the community understand that, following separation, the residence parent (irrespective of whether that person is the mother or father of the child) does not set the conditions and determine the individual circumstances under which the other parent - or others, including grandparents and relatives - can have contact with a child.
4.34 Education programmes might also be introduced for couples who have already split up, if one partner is frustrating the other in obtaining the contact with their children which the courts have decided is in their children's best interests. In theory, courts can fine or even send to prison those who deliberately obstruct contact: but these remedies are frequently ineffective, if not counterproductive, and the courts use them only as a last resort. These programmes, in contrast, would be positive and constructive, showing how continuing contact with both parents is normally in a child's best interests. (Safeguards and exemptions would again be needed in cases where violence was or had been an issue.)However we consider that this does not go far enough and we feel that the Government should be examining a range of measures such as those proposed by the Family Law Council (of Australia) which have recently been accepted by the Australian Government. In their report 'Child Contact Orders: Enforcement and Penalties' (June 1998) the Family Law Council suggest that there is a need for a three tiered approach in dealing with the contravention of contact orders:
We agree with the Family Law Council that the use of standard forms may improve the clarity of contact orders, and reduce the opportunity for disputes, and we support their proposal that the orders should be endorsed with warnings which indicate the seriousness of breaching them and advice about what to do when they are breached.
To this end we recommend that the Government should rethink its attitude on post divorce parenting and amend the regulations of the Children Act 1989 to ensure that shared residence orders are the most common form of order and are widely used by judges. The Child Support Act and Social Security regulations will also need to be amended to support this change.
We would commend to the Government the findings of the Family Law Council (attached)
Family Law Council, Child Contact Orders: Enforcement and Penalties; Canberra, June 1998 (http://law.anu.edu.au/flc/reports/penrpt2REV.htm)
Last updated - 15 March 1999