(This is the second of two posts about the Oxford academic Dr Robert George)

In another post Dr George seeks to explode some of the “myths” surrounding family law (George, 2012a).  He declares he is going to present recent research to back up his argument, but he merely promotes papers by his colleagues in OXFLAP.  George’s familiar thesis is that very few parents go to court, and that those who do are so dysfunctional and violent that it argues irrefutably against a general presumption of shared parenting.

Let’s take his claim that only 10% of separating parents go to court.  If true it would mean that the number going to court, which he puts at 95,500, would be 10% of 955,000 separating couples.  That is a huge number, and much larger than the usual annual estimate of separating couples which is around 200,000.

There are various sources of the 10% figure, but all are based on samples.  One such source is the survey of 961 parents by Alison Blackwell and Fiona Dawes which showed that only 11% of successful contact arrangements had been ordered by the family courts(Blackwell & Dawes, 2003).  That is obviously quite another measure.  Dr George bases his own figure on two samples of 265 resident and 170 non-resident parents (Lader, 2008).  The proportions who had been to court were respectively 8 and 17%.  Fairly obviously, had these samples been representative, the figures would have been the same; the wide margin of error, never mentioned in this type of survey, means that the F4J estimate of 21% is entirely reasonable.

The reason for promoting the 10% figure is to establish this as a severely conflicted and possibly violent minority of parents; the corollary is to imply that all other parents are able to resolve these disputes amicably between themselves.  There is actually little evidence for this as there has been no research into this group.  George estimates that though they don’t end up in court, 80% of parents consult a solicitor.  If true, that is an indication of how difficult these matters are to resolve.  The solutions solicitors come up with are likely to mirror court-imposed ones, which means that even if these parents don’t go to court, the courts still influence the outcomes – the majority of parents are thus acting “in the shadow of the law”.

This means that the default sole-maternal-custody model used by the courts has much wider impact than merely on litigating parents and serves to create a “culture” within society in which sole maternal custody is deemed the norm.

In the same blog post Dr George says,

Of those [95,500 cases which went to court], only 300 ended with the court specifically refusing to allow the father to see his child.  That’s 0.31% of litigated cases – or, when you take into account that only10% of cases go to court in the first place, 0.031% of all separating families. 

This is a smokescreen: it is immaterial.  Shared parenting groups have no interest in this tiny number of cases.  What George is doing – and what others like Liz Trinder of Exeter University do – is to imply that these are the cases upon which the entire equal parenting movement is based: that the members of F4J and other groups all come from this 0.031% of separating families.

Were this the case, George’s argument for retaining the legal status quo and resisting reform would be justified, but it is not.

Despite the fact that the majority of applicants for contact orders are granted orders of some sort, the F4J campaign is based on the identification of four fundamental problems;

  • These orders often represent very low levels of contact, including indirect contact by letter or email, and contact supervised by social workers in the sterile environments of contact centres;
  • The courts do not monitor whether the contact ordered actually takes place;
  • The courts do not enforce contact when it is obstructed so that many contact orders are ignored with impunity;
  • The courts do not monitor the long-term effects of contact orders on children and families.

And despite the fact that numerous official reports have acknowledged these problems (Children Act Sub-Committee of the Advisory Board on Family Law, 2002) (Constitutional Affairs Committee, 2005), Dr George seeks to deny them, using a 2008 study from OXFLAP to refute the claim that contact ordered is often insufficient to maintain a meaningful relationship (Hunt & Macleod, 2008).

The study looked at a tiny sample of 286 applications for contact (out of a possible 78,000 that year), 77% of them from fathers.  In 4 out of 5 cases the proceedings had ended with an order or agreement for some degree of “direct” contact.  Closer analysis of the figures, however, reveals that more than half of the children were unable to stay overnight with their non-resident parents and that 1 in 5 applications, representing nearly 16,000 that year, had resulted in no order for contact at all – of any sort.  The study showed that court orders were being flouted and the courts were not monitoring contact or enforcing it when fathers returned to court.

Where contact was taking place the levels reported were very poor, with the most common arrangement – 2 overnights per fortnight – misleadingly represented as satisfactory.  Only 12% of arrangements allowed stays of more than 2 nights at a time.  Only half of applications resulted in the level of contact applied for (George represents this as “almost all cases”), and of parents who applied to have existing orders enforced, only half were successful.

The extraordinary fact is that this report is the only one on which apologists rely when rejecting the charge that the courts are biased against non-resident parents.  No attempt was made to engage with the detailed claims that fathers’ groups had made, and the preference instead was to interview solicitors, who obviously refuted criticism.  This repeated failure to gather parents’ views leads to a very distorted perspective.  The truth is that because contact is neither monitored nor enforced there is absolutely no evidence that contact orders are of any value.  Because contact orders are by far the most numerous of orders made, this calls into doubt the very existence of a family court.

Like his colleagues in OXFLAP, Dr George is not an objective and detached academic observer: he is a campaigner, hiding behind the respected name of Oxford University and campaigning to ensure that the law does not change to give fathers equal rights to those of mothers.  Tragically this will also ensure that there is no improvement in children’s rights to maintain relationships with both of their parents following separation.

Works Cited

Aris, R., & Harrison, C. (2007). Domestic Violence and the Supplemental Information Form C1A: an evaluation of the use and effects of the introduction of the form into the Family Courts. London: Ministry of Justice.

Blackwell, A., & Dawes, F. (2003). Non-Resident Parental Contact. Department for Constitutional Affairs.

Bradshaw, J. (1998). Non-Resident Fathers in Britain, Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Population and Household Change Research Programme. University of York.

Bradshaw, J., & Millar, J. (1991). Lone parent families in the United Kingdom, DSS Research Report No 6. London: HMSO.

Butler-Sloss, E. (2003). Paul Sieghart Memorial Lecture. British Institute of Human Rights. London: King’s College.

Cawson, P. (2002). Child maltreatment in the family: the experience of a national sample of young people. NSPCC.

Cawson, P., Wattam, C., Brooker, S., & Kelly, G. (2000). Child maltreatment in the United Kingdom: a study of the prevalence of child abuse and neglect. NSPCC.

Children Act Sub-Committee of the Advisory Board on Family Law. (2002). Making Contact Work: A Report to The Lord Chancellor on the Facilitation of Arrangements for Contact between Children and their Non-Residential Parents and the Enforcement of court Orders for Contact.

Constitutional Affairs Committee. (2005). Family Justice: the operation of the family courts, Fourth Report of Session 2004–05 .

George, R. (2012a, April 27). Shared Time Parenting After Divorce – What the Research Says. Retrieved from Legalliberal.blogspot.co.uk.

George, R. (2012b, June 15). Initial Thoughts About the Cooperative Parenting Consultation. Retrieved from Legalliberal.blogspot.co.uk.

Lader, D. (2008). Omnibus Survey Report No. 38: Non-resident parental contact, 2007/8. Cardiff: Office for National Statistics.

Speak, S., Cameron, S., & Gilroy, R. (1997). Young single fathers: Participation in fatherhood – bridges and barriers. Newcastle: University of Newcastle.

Wilson, G. B., Gillies, J. B., & Mayes, G. M. (2006). Fathers as Co-Parents: How Non-Resident Fathers Construe Family Situations. Glasgow: Department of Psychology, University of Glasgow.