Author’s Note: the history of the equal parenting movement is controversial; documentary evidence is sparse and contradictory.  Hundreds of mothers and fathers have contributed to the story, and most are doomed to anonymity, so it is important not to overstate the significance of those who do get a mention.  You are welcome to correct factual errors, but if your opinion differs, please respect mine.

Fathers Strike Back

I wasn’t interested in persuading the establishment to reform the law.  I wanted to beat the fuckers into submission.  I wanted every family law professional strung up by their bollocks and hung from a lamp post until they apologised or rotted.

Matt O’Connor (O’Connor, 2007)

It is convenient to date the birth of the fathers’ rights movement to 12th June 1974 and an article in the Guardian newspaper by Keith Parkin, a West Country financial consultant and art collector.  Together with Alick Elithorn, a child psychiatrist, he had established a campaign to challenge the prevailing attitudes within the family courts,

A society called Families Need Fathers has been formed.  It will campaign for equal parental rights in cases of custody, care and control, and for realistic positive access for the unsuccessful parent (Parkin, 1974).

The article was followed by a supportive item in September by Gareth Parry, but by November the feminist columnist Jill Tweedy was leading the backlash.  The challenges fathers face today have not improved in the intervening 40 years: the unequal treatment by the courts, the winner-takes-all outcomes, and the lack of access to his children for the losing parent.  Parkin described the situation in which fathers were then typically finding themselves,

Cases concerning custody, care and control which come before the courts after a divorce usually meet with the private preconceptions of the presiding judge, against which the ritual of assessing the individual merits of the case is farcically irrelevant.

As we have noted, a judge’s ‘private preconceptions’ are effectively introduced into the case as evidence which may not then be challenged by the parties.  Parkin also reiterated the familiar warning that cases coming before the family courts were not capable of resolution through the legal process: they were not justiciable; he expressed the view many would share in the decades to come,

Questions of custody, care and control should not be matters of law.  To try to assess children’s needs in a litigious context only exacerbates a situation which is already complex and very sensitive, and the whole process is an affront to the dignity of men, women and children.  The relevant facts and needs of such cases are not discernible by legal procedures, but require skills of a different order.  These questions should, therefore, be taken away from the judiciary system and decided by appropriately qualified people in the more sympathetic atmosphere of a family court.

Such a court would create a system of communications which in itself would do much to improve the prospects of divided families.  The ambience of care and concern, allied to the relevant expertise, would also create new understanding of the problems involved, which would help to ensure that directions regarding access were a frequent reality.

Be careful what you wish for: Parkin got the family court he demanded, but it hasn’t been the solution he hoped, and he failed to imagine what a ‘family court’ would look like in reality.  The concerns FNF campaigned on remain familiar to contemporary campaigners: the tilted playing field, the failure of the courts to enforce orders, the inappropriate intrusion of the Probation Service (now rebranded as CAFCASS) into family disputes.

The membership grew, however; Families Need Fathers flourished and in 1979 became a registered charity.  Its funding was more problematic and the organisation began to court strange bedfellows, starting with the GLC in 1985.  In 1992 it began paying its staff.  Such changes – the need for a secure income, the requirement to keep donors on board – necessitated substantial compromises.  Formerly loyal members left and set up their own organisations, Both Parents Forever, the Campaign for Justice in Divorce, the Association of Shared Parenting, the Shared Parenting Information Group.  For many members, FNF’s flirtation with New Labour, the most family-hostile government of recent times, was the last straw and contributed to the formation of Fathers4Justice.  Families Need Fathers gained substantial government funding, but lost any remaining credibility it may once have had; its 16 full-time staff were now professional charity workers with little personal experience of family justice.  FNF were tempted and they fell; US family crusader Stephen Baskerville explains,

Fatherhood promotion groups are no more immune than anyone else from the allure of government money, which can easily end up fuelling the patronage and the problem rather than providing the solution… In its attack on independent fathers’ groups which are funded entirely by members’ contributions and receive no government money, the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (itself government-funded) and the US Justice Department suggest countering the message of fathers’ advocates by offering financial payments to fatherhood organisations willing to toe a government-approved line and join in the vilification of fathers: ‘To counter these harmful messages [of fathers’ groups], the voices of ‘responsible’ fathers’ groups must be heard on the subject of domestic violence and child custody – and there must be an increase in resources to these groups so their voices can be heard’ (Baskerville, 2007).

As FNF failed to provide a focus for disenfranchised parents, family rights organisations proliferated: the Equal Parenting Council, Child Rescue, Family and Youth Concern, the UK Men’s Movement, Men’s Aid, Dads After Divorce, the National Society for Children and Family Contact, the National Association for Child Support Action, Family Rights Group, Association of Shared Parenting and the False Allegations Support Organisation.  This reflected the extent of the problem, but it also revealed something else: some of these groups, like FNF in its original conception, aimed to help fathers, others sought to influence policy through lobbying, others established databases of knowledge and research.  This variety, despite their often different though complementary functions, showed how disunited fathers were in their basic approach to resolving their problems.  Such disunity, coupled with petty rivalries and conflicts of egos, has been at least as great an obstacle to the movement as any other.

The Cheltenham group, established in 1994 by members of FNF, Dads After Divorce, and Parents Forever Scotland, represented the first attempt to form a coalition of parenting organisations.  It published a report, The Emperor’s New Clothes, written in 1997 by Barry Worrall, John Campion, Norman Dennis and Susan Secker, which categorised the factors contributing to father exclusion, utilising a survey of FNF members.  It showed shared residence was being ordered in only 4.4% of members’ cases.  They concluded that,

  • no single responsible party obtained an overview of each individual case;
  • no single Government Department had responsibility for the family, family law and the social consequences of current practice;
  • the law had been heavily influenced by academics and lawyers whose considerations were not based on the realities of the lives of the people whom they affected; and
  • the legal process was corrupted with serious malpractice taking place in all areas and at all levels, so that Parliament’s intentions were being overturned with respect to the fundamental principles laid down in statute.

As a result of this, they said,

  • the divorce rate has risen fourfold since the 1969 reforms and subsequent case law;
  • more than 1,000,000 children are brought up in single-parent ‘families’, usually without a father;
  • there is a serious financial burden on the country to support such ‘families’; and
  • ever more drastic steps have been required to contain the consequences such as the Child Support Act 1991.

The problem of fathers and contact was not a new one; the Welfare State, established in 1948, led unintentionally to a rise in family breakdown because it enabled wives to leave their husbands and allowed the raising of children to be conducted independently of marriage.  The growing cult of feminism taught women to be dissatisfied with matrimony and to fear and hate men; the myth of male domestic violence obliged the courts to ‘err on the side of caution’ and the primary carer ideology taught them to exclude fathers from their families.  Fresh impetus to increasing family breakdown was provided by the Divorce Reform Act of 1969 and Matrimonial Causes Act of 1973.  The ease with which a father can be removed from his family and his child’s life is frightening; no evidence is required and it is all ‘legal’ because it has been stamped compliant with the child’s best interests.

In the late 1990s Plymouth-based taxi-driver Mark Harris set up a protest group called Dads Against Discrimination (DADS); its first protest, attended by around 20 parents, was outside the Plymouth County Court in April 2000 and has been hailed as the first fathers’ rights protest outside a family court.  Harris’s group developed the familiar campaign style using banners and scaling buildings; on 1st October he led a march of 150 parents from Trafalgar Square to Number 10 where he handed in a petition demanding equal parenting and an end to court secrecy.  When Harris was arrested on the false allegation that he had threatened to damage his ex-wife’s car police searched his house and confiscated the DADS membership database; questioning by CID revealed the police were only interested in DADS and not in the allegations.  On the 23rd March 2001 Harris was sentenced by James Munby to 10 months in Pentonville Prison allegedly for the crime of saying hello to his three daughters when he saw them in a shop and thereby breaching the terms of a contact order.  After 133 hearings costing £1million of tax-payers’ money Harris’s daughters chose to live with him.

One of his visitors in prison was Matt O’Connor, a London-based creative director and disenfranchised father.  He was already a member of the Equal Parenting Council and Families Need Fathers but his confrontational style had caused him to be thrown out of an East End meeting – ‘a departure lounge for dispossessed dads’ (O’Connor, 2007).  Hairdresser Tony Lewis had managed to win custody of his two sons, James and Anthony, but it had taken 22 hearings and left him with debts of £40,000; the idea for a new campaign came when controversial US campaigner Richard Gardner told him FNF was ‘teaching people to swim’ when he could have far more effect ‘getting up on the bank and finding the sod who was throwing them in’.  The pair began to put together plans for an alternative to FNF; the inaugural meeting was held in a school hall in Gorleston, near Lowestoft, and was made up of disaffected FNF members.  With Harris in prison they ‘took over the [DADS] protests, reshaped the structure of the campaign, turning the protests into a far more professional affair, and re-launched the ongoing campaign under Fathers4Justice’. (Harris, 2007)  The name appears to have been taken from a defunct American organisation of the 1980s.

In 2002 the Government received a report it had commissioned into the problem of contact, Making Contact Work (The Advisory Board on Family Law: Children Act Sub-Committee, 2002).  It was fatally compromised through seeking to appease ideologically motivated organisations like the NSPCC and Women’s Aid; the report recommended more information be given to parents, more funding for the newly-formed CAFCASS and for contact centres, greater use of mediation and conciliation, more flexible representation of children, wider powers of enforcement and more research.  Some of these suggestions led later to the reforms of the Children and Adoption Act 2006, but there was no mention at all of what parents believed was actually required: open justice, equitable treatment of parents, and the monitoring and recording of outcomes.

To implement the report the Lord Chancellor’s Department established a number of committees and sub-committees which came to be lobbied heavily by the fathers’ groups.  Informal monthly discussions were held with LCD staff such as Amanda Finlay, Warren Davis, Stuart Moore, Yvonne Neary and Mike Tester.  The ‘groupthink’ remained as Keith Parkin had described: that mothers should retain sole custody, care and control.  A clear anti-father prejudice was apparent and the decisive committee, the Outcomes and Evaluations Group, comprised nine women and just one man.  In June Amanda Finlay invited fathers’ groups to nominate delegates and a temporary ‘Coalition for Equal Parenting’ was formed: Tony Coe and Paul Duffield (Equal Parenting Council), Penny Cross (Mothers Apart from Their Children), Stephen Fitzgerald (Coalition Coordinator), Tony Lewis (representing FNF), Robert Whiston (Mankind) and Matt O’Connor (Fathers4Justice).

A meeting was held at 1:00pm on Tuesday, 29th October 2002 hosted by Sally Field, Head of Family Policy Division 2, and Warren Davies, Head of Children Branch.  Their starting position was that there was nothing wrong with the system as it stood.  What they had been tasked to achieve was a way of making contact ‘safe’.  In other words, they had taken on board the concerns of women’s groups but had chosen to reject outright the concerns of fathers.  The delegates challenged their presumption that contact was not safe.  Field embraced the orthodoxy that continuing conflict between parents was worse for children than loss of contact and reminded them that fathers had no right in law to contact with their children, it was up to them to make an application to the court; the Government, she reminded them, didn’t believe that ‘a presumption of contact would be helpful’, a meaningless phrase with which fathers would become only too familiar.

Making Contact Work, published that spring, recognised the concerns of Women’s Aid over contact in situations of domestic violence and included the caveat that this issue had already been addressed in an earlier report to the Lord Chancellor (Lord Chancellor’s Department, 2000) which had been ‘cited with approval in the influential decision of the Court of Appeal, Re L, V, M and H (Contact: Domestic Violence) [2000] 2 FLR 334’.  The focus of Making Contact Work, by contrast, was on cases in which domestic violence was not an issue.  Women’s Aid had misrepresented ‘the nature and purpose of the consultation paper’ and sought to introduce domestic violence as a component of all cases.  The LCD staff were manifestly determined to make the same error.

Warren Davies maintained that fathers had to prove contact would be in the child’s best interests (this was not at all what the Children Act Sub-Committee had recommended); ‘every case is different’, he said, repeating another familiar mantra.  ‘That’s bollocks,’ snapped O’Connor, ‘every murder case is different, but the law is the same: it has to be’.  The LCD was challenged to provide evidence that could demonstrate the rationale for severance from fathers.  ‘So I presume that the judiciary and CAFCASS know what happens to these kids afterwards?’ demanded O’Connor, ‘I presume there are records for the outcome for children?’  There was silence.  The coalition delegates concluded that court decisions could only be based on conjecture, government mantra and deceit.  Tony Coe felt Field was trying to convince the delegates that Parliament had not expressly intended that shared residence should be the common form of order when in his view there was clear evidence that it had: the Law Commission paper 172 had stated a child should more commonly live with both parents than with one.

Field clung to her point that non-resident parents did not lose equal parental responsibility (a detail of no consequence in practice).  Robert Whiston observed there was less abuse in cases where both parents were involved in care; Field evaded this: abuse was a matter for the Department of Health, not for them.  Whiston felt the problem was one of judicial training and wanted to know who trained the judges and what they were taught; Field responded that the Judicial Studies Board was independent of the LCD.  Clearly the discussion was going nowhere: Field blocked every move; O’Connor demanded that the LCD engage in proper dialogue before storming out.  The meeting was so badly handled by the LCD staff that Sally Field and her colleague at the Lord Chancellor’s Department, Amanda Finlay, came to be celebrated as the ‘midwives’ of Fathers4Justice.  By January 2003 all fathers’ groups had pulled out of the talks.

O’Connor’s outcomes gibe exposes the great void at the heart of the family justice system: the simple fact that it operates with absolutely no idea what effect its interventions have.  A Commons report observed that—

‘evidence-based practice’, which is of growing importance in areas such as health and social care, is lacking, particularly in the area of the management of private law disputes and decisions about contact.  The complaints which we have received from non-resident parents and their representative groups alleging bias against them on the part of CAFCASS, for example, perhaps reflect the concern expressed by MCSI [the Magistrates Courts Service of Inspection] that CAFCASS is to some extent working in a vacuum when it comes to making recommendations to a court about what is going to be best for any particular child (Department for Constitutional Affairs Select Committee, 2003).

Fathers4Justice, founded as a ‘Greenpeace for dads’ and constituted of parents frustrated by the campaign’s 30-year paralysis, eschewed the Families Need Fathers committee-based approach, taking fathers out of the back-rooms of public houses and putting them onto the streets when on 17th December 2002 150 Father Christmases descended on London.  In 2003 F4J launched an all-out campaign against CAFCASS involving members clad in white paper suits and face-masks ‘cleaning up family law’ by scrubbing the outside of CAFCASS offices, displaying placards and handing out leaflets.  September saw a contrived three-day show trial of three members, Matt O’Connor, Sean O’Connell and Sarah Ashford, for the heinous crime of painting the door of an Ipswich CAFCASS office purple.  Each received a 12-month conditional discharge and was ordered to pay costs.  After the trial CAFCASS denied claims made in court that they were not properly trained and didn’t know what they were doing, despite the evidence that they had no means of knowing where the best interests of children lay (Emons, 2003),

Contrary to the group’s allegations that Cafcass practitioners are under-trained, our practitioners are qualified in social work with experience of working with children and families in either a social services or family court background.

Cafcass believes its professional and committed workforce is its greatest asset.  The work our practitioners do with families in dispute over contact with their children often takes place in hostile and emotionally-charged circumstances.  It is understandable therefore, that parents sometimes do not agree with the decisions taken by the court on residence and contact issues.  We would encourage them to follow established complaints procedures if this is the case.

Far from destroying families as asserted by Fathers 4 Justice, Cafcass plays a role in helping families come to agreement on future arrangements that are in the best interests of their children.

In October the CAFCASS Chairman, Anthony Hewson, resigned, confessing his organisation was sinking under the weight of criticism.  This was a blow to fathers who had seen in Hewson a man of honesty and integrity with the potential to turn CAFCASS around.  In December, following a never-published report by Professor Sir Clive Booth, the Lord Chancellor, Charlie Falconer, invited the entire board to resign after the service had descended into ‘chaos’ and transferred responsibility from the Lord Chancellor’s Department to the Minister for Children, Margaret Hodge.  Within a month Hodge demonstrated her utter unsuitability for the role.  As leader of Islington Council between 1982 and 1992 she had been responsible for its failure to investigate allegations of child abuse.  When Demetrious Panton went public in 2003 with his claim to have been sexually abused by the head of a council-run children’s home a number of national papers called for her resignation.  In a letter to him Hodge dismissed Panton as ‘extremely disturbed’.  The letter, initially protected by judicial injunction, was eventually published, forcing Hodge to pay Panton’s legal costs and issue a public apology.

In the Autumn singer and political activist Bob Geldof weighed into the controversy with a ferocious attack on the justice system,

The law is creating vast wells of misery, massive discontent, an unstable society of feral children and feckless adolescents who have no understanding of authority, no knowledge of a man’s love and how different but equal it is to a woman’s.

Family law as it currently stands does not work.  It is rarely of benefit to the child and promotes injustice, conflict and unhappiness on a massive scale (Elliott, 2003).

Geldof declared, ‘My agenda is to change this law.  It’s a blunt instrument and if you’re subject to it you’re freaking out.  On father’s day there is a peak of suicides, because of the fathers who are not allowed to see their kids on that day’.  In these early years of F4J the press was comparatively supportive; an editorial in the Independent, for example, approved, ‘Bob Geldof is right… There are two injustices in particular that cry out to be remedied, one reinforcing the other.  The first is the anti-father bias of the family courts; the other is their secrecy’ (The Independent, 2003).  The paper added this very prescient warning, ‘If Mr Geldof is in error, it is in his implication that it is enough to recognise the injustices to put them right’.  This was an error to be repeated by the equal parenting campaign many times; no one anticipated the response of the system would be simply to shrug off the attacks made on it and carry on its business as usual.  The fathers’ rights movement was dangerously naïve: the campaigners had believed that merely ‘making the injustice visible’ (a phrase borrowed from Ghandi) would lead to wide-ranging reform; they failed to appreciate that the forces ranged against them very much needed the status quo to endure.

Part of the problem was that O’Connor deliberately promoted a crude comprehension of the problems fathers faced calculated to maximise anger and membership; there were very few professionals or academics in the group and little attempt to produce a reasoned critique as the Cheltenham Group had done.  The Blueprint for Family Law in the 21st Century, prepared in 2003 by Gary Burch, a software designer, and the barrister Michael Cox, was equal parenting’s first and only manifesto and a populist call to arms which made only limited effort to justify the claims it made through citation – citations were second-hand from the media or unattributed.  The campaign was determinedly anti-intellectual: supporters had to follow O’Connor’s take on the issue as a civil rights one, comparable with apartheid.  This allowed him to posture as a civil rights leader comparable with his heroes Ghandi or Martin Luther King and lent moral authority to his call to civil disobedience.  There was no debate or discussion, and dissenters were suppressed and thrown out.  This policy would prove fatal to the campaign, but it was one O’Connor would never allow to be questioned.

Works Cited

Baskerville, S. (2007). Taken into Custody: the War against Fathers, Marriage, and the Family. Cumberland House.

Department for Constitutional Affairs Select Committee. (2003). Report into CAFCASS. London: Stationery Office.

Elliott, J. (2003, September 7). Bob Geldof, The real love that dare not speak its name: a sometimes coherent rant, quoted by Geldof lashes courts over fathers’ rights. The Times.

Emons, M. (2003, September 7). Cafcass hits back at ‘unfair’ claim. Suffolk Evening Star.

Harman, H., Hewitt, P., & Coote, A. (1990). The Family Way: a new approach to policy making. London: Institute for Public Policy Research.

Harris, M. (2007). Family Court Hell. Brighton: Pen Press Publishers.

Lord Chancellor’s Department. (2000). Report to the Lord Chancellor on the Question of Parental Contact in Cases where there is Domestic Violence. London.

O’Connor, M. (2007). Fathers 4 Justice: the inside story. London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson.

Parkin, K. (1974, June 12). Fathers need their families. The Guardian.

The Advisory Board on Family Law: Children Act Sub-Committee. (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. London.

The Independent. (2003, September 12). Editorial: Family law is secretive and biased against fathers. The Independent.