A letter to the Prime Minister from the author Louis de Bernières. Reproduced here because I cannot hope to express these sentiments as well as he does.
Dear Prime Minister,
You seem to be unaware that the principal reason that fathers become estranged from their families is that the family justice system is institutionally gender-biased. A father has to fight bitterly to get what is automatically awarded to mothers, and if he has no money he cannot even do this. Fathers get pillaged of their assets, and are then told that they cannot have their children overnight because their bedsits are unsuitable. They get accused of sexual or physical violence so that they cannot see their children for months while the accusations are dilatorily investigated.
Then judges reason preposterously that, since the children have got used to the situation, this should not be disturbed, and will decree that the father is now entitled to even less time. A mother is never punished for disobeying court orders, in case this upsets her and her distress impacts on the children. A father’s distress will be used against him to show that he is unstable. The children’s distress at losing their father does not count, and their stated preferences are ignored.
Mothers often try to move long distances away to ensure that contact is in fact impossible, and children find themselves saddled with a stepfather of whose existence they may have been previously unaware. Cases are adjourned over and over, for months, and are heard by different judges at each sitting. Cases are investigated by people from a body called Cafcass, which is underfunded, understaffed, undertrained, chaotic, unaccountable, does not do long-term studies, and simplifies its tasks by following anachronistic gender stereotypes.
In the meantime, the father loses physical and emotional touch with his children; he loses all hope; the stress and despair make it impossible to concentrate on his work. He finds that the more his children are withheld from him, the more maintenance he has to pay. The children are what he loves most and are his reason for living. Some men may spiral down into mental illness, alcoholism or even suicide. One charity used to keep a book of suicides called “The Book of The Dead”.
Mr Cameron, I condemn feckless fathers as strongly as you do, but you appear unaware that by far the majority of relationships involving children are dissolved by mothers. A statistic I have read recently stated that it is 83 per cent. I look forward to your article next Mother’s Day.
The biggest social scandal of our time is the absolute lack of justice for fathers, and the cruelty to which they and their children are routinely subjected by a legal system that is capricious and out of touch with the way we live now. These days, Mr Cameron, fathers push buggies, make meals, change nappies and spend hours watching awful children’s programmes just for the sake of the cuddles. The only thing we can’t do is breastfeed.
You are a father of young children, and I hope you never experience the horrors that come from a failed marriage. It is a Kafkaesque nightmare of injustices and double-binds. As you get demoted to the status of distant relative, you will find that your relations also lose your children, too. Most of my letters of support have come from women who are desperate on their brothers’ and sons’ behalf, or from grandmothers who have not seen their grandchildren for years.
Mr Cameron, the treatment of fathers in this country amounts to a contravention of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which concerns the right to a family life, and our court procedures contravene the right to a fair trial. If I could raise the necessary money to take cases to the European Court, I would give up years of my life to do so. Some day, somebody will.
Yours truly, etc
Louis de Bernières