Irish Times

February 20, 2002

The father of all battles

Many groups are campaigning for a review of our family-law system, particularly fathers who feel they are discriminated against. But is the gender war diverting attention from what should be everybody's primary concern - the children?, asks Carol Coulter

Carol Coulter
Irish Times

In Britain the Lord Chancellor has set up an advisory committee, under the chairmanship of Sir Nicholas Wall, to examine the workings of the family law system, and it has just published its first report, Making Contact Work. Despite numerous complaints about the family-law system in the Republic, there is no sign of such a review. But nor is there much common cause between the various groups and individuals concerned about defects in the family-law system.

The Parents' Defence Campaign, under the chairmanship of Peter Coleman, is an umbrella group for several organisations complaining about discrimination against fathers in the legal system, many of them composed of the same, or closely associated, individuals.

Coleman blames the legal system, and in particular judges and lawyers, for some men's difficulties in maintaining contact with their children after marriage break-up. He says women initiate the majority of separations and divorces because the legal profession presents these as ways to get what they want.

"Expectations are being marketed to women, the message is to get solicitors involved," says Coleman. This situation is then perpetuated by the judges who, he says, favour women in court, thereby demonstrating that they do indeed get what they want.

Why, then, are about 80 per cent of family-law cases settled out of court? "Men negotiate with a gun to their heads. They know what will happen if they go to court. The wife gets the baby, the house and maintenance, the man gets the bills and the bedsit."

Coleman acknowledges that those who join the groups linked to the Parents' Defence Campaign are, by definition, dissatisfied with the outcome of family-law cases. "We don't claim to have a fair cross-section of separated fathers. But we do keep hearing the same stories." The complaints include the fact that the in-camera rule makes the system opaque, that guardianship confers few real rights on fathers, that access orders can be ineffectual if the mother does not wish to co-operate, that men can be excluded from their homes by barring orders granted in their absence (this can be appealed, but it takes time) and that this consolidates the position of the woman in the home with the children.

Frances Byrne is the co-ordinator of the One Parent Exchange and Network, which represents 76 lone-parent groups in the Republic. Most, though not all, of their members are mothers - single, separated and divorced. She agrees with Coleman on many issues, although she points out that mothers have their share of bad experiences. "I accept their horror stories. But what about the fathers who do not turn up for an arranged visit? There's nothing as devastating as watching children slowly realise - it takes about two hours - that Daddy is not going to come."

She says that most people who separate do agree the arrangements for their children, however. "The vast majority of our members sort it out. They say: 'Of course he sees the kids'. The first year is horrible, everyone says, but then things get sorted out. The vast majority just get on with it."

Byrne is concerned that a debate focused on the grievances of men - or, indeed, women - diverts attention away from what should be everyone's main concern: the rights and welfare of children. These are not served by the adversarial legal system, she says.

However, Byrne and Coleman agree on the need to break the link between access and maintenance. "Judges link them all the time," she says. "They know how difficult it is to get into court, and if you go in for access they ask, 'What about maintenance?', when you weren't there for that at all."

Family-law specialist Geoffrey Shannon believes that there should be no connection between the questions of custody and access and property-related issues, such as the house and maintenance, when couples separate. This makes children bargaining chips in a fraught business, with access to their parents being weighed against property considerations.

In some countries, such as Australia and Canada, there is compulsory mediation on issues relating to children, and this works very well. People cannot get a legal dissolution of their marriage without a certificate to say they have completed a mediation course and that the future of the children is settled.

Various international conventions on children and, increasingly, Irish law stress the rights of children to know both their parents and spend time with both.

It is now widely acknowledged that "access" should be children's access to their parents, not parents' access to their children, and should be withheld only when there are compelling reasons for doing so, for the safety and welfare of the child.

Both Byrne and Coleman support an emphasis on children's rights; the separation of access and money issues; and the removal of child-related family-law issues from an adversarial system to mediation.

With such a broad area of agreement, there should be co-operation between the fathers' rights groups and groups representing lone parents, at least on these issues. But that does not happen. Is this because there is a wider agenda at work? Among fathers' groups, is there a reluctance to work with organisations dominated by women because of hostility to women's groups per se? And is there a suspicion of men's groups among those whose focus has been on women's grievances?

Such suspicions may be understandable in the light of the material being circulated by some fathers' groups. One affiliate to the Parents' Defence Campaign is Non- Disposable Daddies of Ireland, operating under the acronym Noddi, which bases much of its argument on statistics, surveys, books and articles from the US. These are frequently characterised by extreme hostility to women in general and feminism in particular, and their influence can be seen in the use of terms such as "feminazis" into the debate here.

Typical was a recent exchange of correspondence circulated to the media between Noddi and its US associates about the visit to Ireland of the pro-feminist academic Prof Michael Kimmel. His work on domestic violence was the subject of a lengthy rejoinder from Mary Cleary, co-ordinator of Amen, which campaigns against domestic violence against men and is also linked to the Parents' Defence Campaign.

"Kimmel is the modern-day Joseph Goebbels," said one correspondent. "Are you suggesting we negotiate with this devil? Keep an open dialog and all that bullshit?" Clearly, the appropriate answer was no.

Noddi points people to the website and work of Dr Charles Corry, founder of the Equal Justice Foundation, which campaigns on domestic violence against men. In one essay, Corry explains that the origins of domestic violence lie in the historic need for men to "discipline" their women and children.

In another essay, Cinderella Revisited, he paints a picture of women as addicted to shopping, obsessed with astrology, incapable of logic and inexplicably attached to plants and animals. But, he concludes ruefully, "even battle-scarred veterans of the war between the sexes can be suckers for a pretty face and a lovely body."

Other articles rail against lawyers and social workers, claiming the latter are "feminazis" and therefore wedded to an anti-male agenda, dedicated to depriving men of their rights.

It is highly questionable whether dispatches from the wilder reaches of the gender battlefields of the US are relevant to Irish families, fractured or otherwise. American society differs widely from ours, not only in its vastness, heterogeneity and violence, but also in its legal and social-welfare systems.

Irish courts frequently cite precedents from English family-law cases but very rarely from the US, where family law has diverged widely from its counterpart in Britain. The past few years have also seen a growing, though little discussed, harmonisation between EU and Irish family law. It is to these countries, rather than the US, that we should be looking for comparisons.

Men facing separation or divorce need and deserve advice, solidarity and support. But if they seek it from groups tainted by an inappropriate and misogynist ideology, drawn from a far-off gender war, they may serve themselves - and, more importantly, their children - ill. Instead, if all those concerned about the shortcomings of our existing family law system adopt a children's rights perspective, common ground could be found for pursuing the badly-needed changes in the family law system.

© 2001