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Children’s experience of parental separation: research challenges law change proposal

Shared parenting presumption is misguided, say authors of new study

Government plans to amend the 1989 Children Act by introducing a presumption of shared parenting are well-intentioned but misguided, say the authors of new research into childhood experience of family break-ups.

Courts should retain their current discretion to put the needs and wishes of individual children first when considering contact disputes between parents, say researchers, who have surveyed the opinions of hundreds of young adults with experience of family break-up.

The research report – 'Taking a longer view of contact: The perspectives of young adults who experienced parental separation in their youth' – documents the reflections of young adults as they look back on post-separation contact arrangements.

The research, a joint project between the Universities of Sussex and Oxford and funded by the Nuffield Foundation, is the first major study in the UK to ask young adults who experienced parental separation in their youth what they thought about the contact they had with their non-resident parent. The authors were Jane Fortin, Emeritus Professor at the Sussex Law School, Sussex University, Joan Hunt, Senior Research Fellow in the Oxford Centre for Family Law and Policy, and Lesley Scanlan, a psychologist who during this study worked as a Research Associate at the University of Sussex.

The report contributes a unique dimension to knowledge about what makes contact a positive experience for children. By tracking their experiences of contact through their childhood and into adulthood, the study also highlights the long-term impact of contact arrangements on parent-child relationships – information crucially important to policy makers and the family courts.  
The researchers say that the report's findings, based on interviews with a national sample of nearly 400 young adults aged between 18 and 35, are timely, as they challenge government plans to alter the Children Act1989. 

The report's findings, in summary, are as follows:

The Justice Select Committee of the House of Commons is currently considering a new draft clause that would promote a change in the way the family courts currently deal with cases of disputed contact arrangements by introducing a presumption of shared parenting.  Critics consider that this would undermine a fundamental principle of the Act: decision-making based on the needs of the individual child.

Jane Fortin, Emeritus Professor of Law at the University of Sussex, who led the study, says:

"The strongest theme from our study is the importance of tailoring contact arrangements to the needs and wishes of the individual child in their particular circumstances. This is best achieved by retaining the courts' discretion to determine whether or not the welfare of the particular child in question would be furthered by the involvement sought by the litigant parent.

"To commit the court to presuming that such involvement will further the child's welfare is to apply a simplistic, broad-brush approach to the subtle complexities of the child-parent relationship."

The report can be accessed here