14 Jun 2013

Have Fathers 4 Justice actually achieved anything?

Its members have scaled the palace, hijacked the National Lottery and are claiming connection to the defaced painting in Westminster Abbey. But what has Fathers 4 Justice achieved?

Its members have scaled the palace, hijacked the National Lottery and are claiming connection to the defaced painting in Westminster Abbey. But what has Fathers 4 Justice achieved?

The campaign group Fathers 4 Justice has catapulted itself back into public consciousness. Tim Haries, a 41-year-old who is said to be a member of the group, has been charged with defacing a painting of the Queen in Westminster Abbey.

Upon arrest he allegedly shouted “Fathers 4 Justice!”

Though not an official protest, Fathers 4 Justice has called the incident a “celebration”, comparing it to the plight of the suffragettes.

It marks a very public return for the controversial, often ridiculed, pressure group that has been torn in different directions in recent years. It even disbanded in 2006 after reports – subsequently condemned by Fathers 4 Justice – that it was plotting to kidnap Tony Blair’s son.

So why the return?

The timing of this latest incident marks something of a return to direct action protest. Its campaign manager, Nadine O’Connor, told Channel 4 News that the group is tired of the “cup of tea and jammy dodgers” approach to political negotiation.

They are frustrated at the state of family law and believe the coalition has reneged on its pre-election commitments for reform to help separated fathers.

She says 200 dads are being separated from their children each day, and direct action is often the last resort when they feel they have nothing left to lose. “By the time they’re clambering on the roof of Buckingham Palace or taking law into their own hands, they’ve usually lost their home, job and most of their money.”

Much of the group’s heavy-handed campaigning occurred during the last decade. It included stunts such as the scaling of Buckingham Palace, the hijacking of a National Lottery draw and throwing purple powder into the House of Commons.

But the group believes it has kept the issue of paternity rights in the public eye and that, on balance, this has been more effective than negotiations with the political and legal establishment.

Meaningful relationship

Experts, however, argue that access rights for separated fathers have improved hugely in the last decade, with one major change being the introduction of new shared parenting laws introduced last November.

The new legislation states that judges must ensure fathers are given the legal right to spend time to develop a meaningful relationship with their sons or daughters – provided a child’s wellbeing is not jeopardised by such a relationship.

Under the legislation, which came into force this year, judges will determine the appropriate time and arrangements, if this cannot be agreed during mediation sessions between estranged parents.

Hitting direct action

But conversely the £220m of proposed cuts to legal aid have made such legal assistance difficult. Peter Jones, a leading divorce and family lawyer, fears that this is going to have a huge effect on the drive for direct action protest.

He told Channel 4 News: “We are moving further and further from a court-driven system of resolution which could well result in more of the sorts of protests that we have seen yesterday.

“Often these are the result of huge level or upset and trauma. And that could intensify amid the desperation of not being able to see your child and not having the appropriate legal assistance to find the right steps to resolve that.”

Emcee Chekwas, a forensic psychologist at Atkinson Lewis, said that it leaves desperate fathers in a difficult situation. “Presented with a platform like Fathers 4 Justice, those who are in an emotional and desperate state will be susceptible to joining their cause.

“But they are operating from a frustration that they don’t have a voice in a system that is not recognising their plight. The unfortunate irony is that when protest reverts to criminal damage, that can affect your future and risks one becoming a bad role model for the very child that they’re actually fighting for.”