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The so-called 'Australian Experience'

According to the solicitor Duncan Ranton writing in the 'Solicitors Journal' ('Shared Parenting boosts children's rights', 13 February 2012),

Contrary to media reports that this is the government championing father’s rights, however, the proposal to enshrine in legislation that it is
important for children to have a meaningful relationship with both parents is not about parental rights. It’s about children’s rights – their entitlement to see and have quality time with both parents, save in exceptional cases. The expression ‘quality time’ is bandied about too frequently and carelessly. As a result, it has lost much of its credibility and currency. However, it has a meaning, to be found in the many longitudinal studies of children following parental separation: in short, children generally benefit hugely from seeing and spending good-quality time with both mothers and fathers.

Positive outcome

The FJR apparently shied away from its initial recommendation because of perceptions of what happened in Australia after legislative reform in 2006; that to confirm legislatively a child’s right to a meaningful relationship would translate into non-resident parents using that as a
fulcrum to demand an equal division of time.

But was the legislation in Australia a disaster? No, far from it. In 2009, following a three-year study of 28,000 participants, the Australian Institute of Family Studies found the legislative reforms a substantial success. There was a decline in court filings and a shift away from parents rushing to court to resolve post-separation difficulties. A greater proportion of parents reported they were able to resolve issues themselves, supported by associated family relationship services. Nevertheless, the review confirmed that the family law system still had some way to go in responding effectively to the minority of cases where there were issues of family violence, child abuse, mental health or substance misuse. For children for whom these were not features of family life, the legislative reforms were found to have worked well.

I believe, therefore, the UK can benefit from Australia’s experience. We have seen the family justice budget decimated and access to courts to resolve parenting issues in anything other than truly urgent cases is beset by chronic delay. If parents know from the outset that a judge will approach most cases from the proposition that the child’s welfare requires a continuing and meaningful relationship with both of them, this will help promote agreement in many cases without the need to enter the court arena. That certainly seems to be the Australian experience.

No legislation can ever realistically hope to cater for every permutation of circumstances. Rather, good legislation should be directed to the majority of cases, while ensuring sufficient flexibility remains so justice may be done in those that are exceptional. The government’s proposal strikes that balance. The introduction of a statement reiterating the importance of children’s relationships with both parents post-separation is appropriate for, and will assist in, the lion’s share of separated families. There will remain an important minority for whom this mission statement will be inappropriate to direct the outcome, because of child protection issues.

I welcome the government’s stance, and support it. Given the real and continuing problems with access to justice and funding, coupled with the damage research demonstrates children sustain during bitter and protracted custody disputes, we do not have the luxury of timidity or inaction. Reform is needed, and this reform is a positive one.

In Australia an outspoken opponent of Shared Parenting legislation is Jennifer McIntosh Ph.D. In June 2011 Dr McIntosh was made the ‘guest editor’ for a special issue of the Family Court Review on 'attachment'.

Professor Michael Lamb of Cambridge University made the following criticism;

The Family Court Review Special Issue edited by McIntosh provided a misleadingly narrow view of attachment theory and of previous attempts to explore the implications of that theory and related research for family court professionals. For example, the editor chose to interview professionals whose opinions seemed likely to accord with hers, and when they dissented, she failed to explore the implications. She thus represented Bowlby’s notion of monotropy as though it was an established and accepted fact; neither the research (which shows the idea to be incorrect) nor Bowlby’s own later disavowal of the idea were addressed, although the implications are profound. More generally, the extensive relevant scholarship was ignored and unrepresented, leaving the unchallenged focus on the editor’s own research and on opinions that accord with her own. As a result, the Special Issue became a platform for opinion, rather than a forum for critical examination of the literature. (Wasted opportunity to engage with the literature on the implications of attachment research for family court professionals, Family Court Review, Volume 50, Issue 3, pages 481–485, July 2012).

According to the 'The Australian' newspaper because of Shared Parenting legislation 'Single dads riding higher but stigmas remain' (Patricia Karvelas & Pia Akerman, April 13 2013),

In 2006, the Howard government overhauled the family law system. The centrepiece was a requirement for Shared Parenting, allowing children the right to continue to know both parents. The move received bipartisan support from Labor despite strong internal resistance from feminist elements in the party, who were concerned it would deprive mothers of rights and could put children at risk. Five years on, the Gillard government - after reports criticising the new shared-care system - changed the laws, placing greater weight on child safety, meeting a key criticism of the Howard reforms.

This article describes how Shared Parenting legislation was introduced despite opposition from 'feminist elements' such as Dr McIntosh.