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Heather Roy's Diary: Fairness In The Family Court

Heather Roy's Diary

"Heather Roy's Diary" is the weekly newsletter from Heather Roy MP.
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Fairness In The Family Court

This week saw the issue of Child Support raised in Parliament, with National MP Judith Collins using the term 'deadbeat dads' to describe those fathers who fail - or refuse - to fulfil their obligation to contribute financially to the raising of their children.

On the whole, New Zealand is a 'can do' nation with 'can do' people: we can, and do, fulfil our responsibilities; we can, and do, pay our own way; we can, and do, stand up for fairness over discrimination. With such a pervading and upstanding social view, New Zealanders on the whole have no time for 'deadbeat dads'.

So why, then, do we allow the odds to be stacked against fathers who are at the opposite end of the scale - who want nothing more than to play an equal or larger part in the lives of their children?

In 2006 the Care of Children Act came into effect, designed in part to shake up the Family Court and to dispel the 'myth' that the Court was biased against men and preferred sole maternal custody as the outcome of its hearings. Under the Act, 'Custody and Access' were replaced by 'Shared Parenting' - meaning that, ideally, both parents share equally the responsibility and joy of their child's day-to-day care; neither parent has full control and neither parent can be left out of their child's life. On paper, it seems wonderfully fair.

Changing legal terms, however, is a far cry from changing attitudes and it is the same judges making the final decision - often with the same gender bias they used before. An example of this lingering attitude can be seen in the case of one father who, having been left with sole care of his child for several months following the breakdown of his relationship with the mother, filed proceedings in the Family Court for an Interim Parenting Order.

Now, one might say that - as it were he who initiated proceedings - the father cannot complain about the treatment he received from the Family Court. However, this man went to the Court after indications that his former partner was about to take the child to live with her in an unstable environment. There were also indications that his former partner would not be keeping to the equal care arrangement they had previously agreed on as she required Majority Care of the child in order to qualify for the DPB. His fears were:

* That his child's living arrangements while with her mother were far from settled - ie the child's mother had no fixed abode and was relying on the generosity of friends to provide a roof over her head on a day-to-day basis.
* The mother would not make the effort to keep the child in Early Childhood Education
* With an informal agreement, the mother would use the child as a weapon or leverage whenever she wanted/needed something (as had happened on at least one occasion)

He also suspected that, once in receipt of the DPB for having Majority Care of their child, it would be HE who had the child for the bulk of the time - while having to pay Child Support to the mother.
Having remained in the family home, and having kept to the stable routine his child was used to, this father felt it best for his child's wellbeing that the child remained with him in the interim until such time as his former partner was in a more suitable situation. He also assumed that the Family Court would feel the same way.

He was wrong. Within minutes of the preliminary hearing, this father realised he was quite possibly on a hiding to nothing. His former partner accused him of keeping their child from her for months, labelled him controlling and domineering, accused him of prolonged domestic abuse and insinuated that he put his career ahead of all else - all without a single shred of evidence.

The judge responded by suggesting to the mother that she had grounds to limit the father's time with the child to Supervised Access, and accepted that the child had been withheld from her mother for months - despite the father providing written proof of dates and times that his former partner had refused to see the child due to social engagements.

Both parties were then given time to come to some kind of access agreement; once this was done and ratified the judge recommended that the father attend a parenting education course - a suggestion that was not made to the mother, whom he thanked for coming along.

And, so, the bias against fathers continues.

The fact is that politicians are right: 'deadbeat dads' DO need to lift their game and be more responsible for the welfare of their children. But at the same time there needs to be more equality for those fathers who truly want to be involved and are doing all they can - spending thousands upon thousands of dollars in lawyer fees - to do just that.

It is time for some real change. Politicians - indeed, New Zealand society as a whole - must take a closer look at the plight of these fathers. Perhaps if we improve the incentives for estranged fathers - and take away the unfair challenges that leave many left out of their children's lives - we would see a drastic reduction in the number of fathers who are so beaten down by the system that they give up completely and play no part in their children's lives.


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