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Family Justice Bill has first reading in House of Commons

Bill seeks to establish presumption in favour of shared parenting

The Family Justice Bill, sponsored by Suella Fernandes MP, has received a First Reading in the House of Commons under the Ten Minute Rule and is due to have a Second Reading on 12 May 2017.

The Bill makes provision for the enforcement of Child Arrangement Orders, including times within which enforcement action must take place; to establish a presumption in favour of shared parenting under Child Arrangement Orders; and to make provision for a commission to review and make recommendations on the operation of family justice; and for connected purposes. The Bill itself is being prepared for publication.

Introducing the Bill, Ms Fernandes said:

"In the majority of divorces, [child arrangements] orders are complied with, but in many cases a defaulting parent—that may be the mother or the father—can generally act with impunity. The courts are slow to respond and reluctant to penalise, sending the damaging message that court orders are optional, not mandatory; that the relationship with the non-resident parent is meaningless, rather than crucial; and that the system is inherently inequitable, rather than robust. In the worst cases, a non-resident parent, usually the father, can be denied contact with their child for several years. If they do not have a spare £10,000 to spend on legal fees, they are essentially erased out of their child's life, with no remedy whatsoever. . . .

"Data from the Ministry of Justice reveal that a mere 1.2% of the 4,654 enforcement applications were successful in 2015. Although the letter of the law sets out discretionary penalties for breach, they are rarely applied in practice, and the rise in the number of unfounded allegations of domestic violence as a defence against enforcement is worrying.

"A new approach is needed: a tougher three strikes approach is long overdue, under which residence should be transferred, if that is safe, and community service should actually, not theoretically, be imposed on parents who are in breach. The confiscation of driving licences or passports should seriously be considered by Parliament. Legislation that emphasises the importance of both parents in children's lives, other than in cases of violence, is needed in England and Wales. Real enforcement is one way of doing this, and shared parenting is another.

"A rebuttable presumption of shared parenting should be a key principle when determining the contact and residence of the children. To be clear, this would not be an explicit statement of an equal 50:50 time division, and it does not mean shared care."

Since 1983-84 14 Bills introduced under the Ten Minute Rule have progressed to Royal Assent. To follow progress of the Bill, click here. To read the Hansard record of the speech introducing the Bill, click here