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House of Commons seminar considers child relocation cases

Speakers highlight urgent need for reform

A seminar in the House of Commons, organised by Families Need Fathers and chaired by Dr Samantha Callan of the Centre for Social Justice, considered the need for reform of child relocation cases. The event at which Professor Marilyn Freeman of London Metropolitan University and Ann Thomas, managing partner of the International Family Law Group, spoke also considered the Custody Minefield's reform proposals in their November 2010 report 'Family Law: Relocation and the Case for Reform'.

The seminar was attended by MPs, solicitors and barristers, psychiatrists, representatives from the Ministry of Justice and family charities.

Craig Pickering, Families Need Father's Chief Executive Officer said:

"There is a growing interest in the issue of relocation from the legal community, politicians and academics alike. Allowing children to be too easily removed from a loving parent and wider family needs to end, to reflect parenting in the twenty first century and to help make the law truly in the best interests of the child. Currently there is a review of the family justice system taking place and we need to ensure that this area is not ignored."

The Custody Minefield's report which includes a review of the debate on relocation, developments in 2010 and proposals for reform can be downloaded from the website of The Custody Minefield. Michael Robinson of that organisation said at the seminar:

'The court's current guidance has two main flaws. The first regards the weighting of evidence, in that unsubstantiated opinion over-rides evidence. Judgments in these cases rarely turn on facts, but instead adhere to an out-of-date and a rather patriarchal view of women.

'The second flaw is the lack of consideration granted to societal change in the past 40 years. In 2001 when relocation guidance was last reviewed, counsel for the father was unable to provide evidence that the comparative importance of fathers, and their role in childcare, had changed in the previous 30 years.'

He went on to say:

'In December 2009, a study by the Children's Society found children 40% more likely to suffer mental health problems when separated from a parent. 40%. Study after study has found that children are more likely to experience mental health and behavioural problems and are more likely to have mental health difficulties in adulthood due to separation from a parent in childhood. The Children's Society found there to be a correlation between childhood depression, and the diminishing of parenting time with a father. No doubt the same would be true if children were routinely removed from their mothers. Children now have two significant attachment figures, and separation anxiety and the ensuing psychological problems caused by this should not come as a surprise. Yet the granting of a relocation application subjects a child to this separation 90% of cases.'

He concluded:

'I have heard it argued that these cases are very difficult, and no doubt they are, as one or other of the parents will be disappointed. There is a simple solution, and one devised by Parliament 20 years ago in the Children Act 1989, that the child's welfare should be the court's paramount consideration. More detailed statutory guidance is however required, to ensure that child welfare is considered according to what evidence confirms today, rather than what was believed in the past.

'In all British child welfare issues, and the issue of 'relocation' is no exception, the precautionary principle should be applied. While I welcome suggestions that there be specific longitudinal studies into relocation in the future, these will take years, and there is no reason to ignore the abundant and compelling longitudinal studies which show a risk of psychological, developmental and emotional harm when a child is separated from a parent. The evidence to support there being legal reform, and legal reform now, is clear.

'That evidence, a review of the debate on relocation, and proposals for legal reform are published in our new report 'Family Law: Relocation, and the Need for Reform'. I would welcome your support in assisting these proposals to become new statutory guidance for the judiciary, so children are not exposed to the risks they face today.'

Ann Thomas of iFLG also spoke about the urgent need for reform, given that in practice it is very heavily weighted in favour of the residential parent, invariably the mother, and the importance of finding ways to resolve these disputes without a final court hearing. Her speech can be downloaded from the iFLG website.