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It goes without saying that most dads want to spend time with their children and maintain a close and loving bond  following the breakdown of a relationship with the children’s mother. Sadly however, that it is not every mother’s experience. I have had several clients who would like their ex-partner/husband and the father of their children to be involved in raising their children, only to be disappointed by the father’s reluctance to commit to spending regular time with them. It can happen the other way round too of course, where the children’s main carer is their dad with the mum failing to be consistent in their lives.

Clients of mine have been surprised when I have advised them that the family courts will not order a parent to spend time with their child. What about the responsibility the parent has to that child? Is it not detrimental to the child not to have a relationship with both parents? How is it acceptable that one parent can get away with being unreliable and inconsistent? In many ways it does seem unfair that whilst the primary carer is expected to make their child available to spend time with their other parent, there is no way to compel that parent to provide regular care and support, other than financially through the Child Maintenance Service.

The reason is the family courts determine applications relating to children based on what is in their best interests. The concern is that it could be emotionally harmful to a child to order their parent to spend time with them against the parent’s wishes. The damaging consequences are not difficult to foresee. A child whose parent does not wish to spend time with them, or not as regularly as they are compelled to, is likely to be left feeling unloved, unwanted, and insecure. Are these consequences more harmful than the harm of having no relationship with one parent at all? It is hard to assess and is likely to depend on the case.

Rather than reforming family law to create orders to force parents to spend time with their children, perhaps a better answer is that societal opinion needs to change, such that it is socially unacceptable for both parents not to be actively involved in raising a child. There will always be safeguarding concerns in some cases, which will need to be treated differently and with care. But in those separated families where there is no risk of harm to a child, if social pressure encouraged both parents to take responsibility, children would undoubtedly receive the benefit.

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