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Penny Booth: 'Sacred Cows' of family life and misery

Date:29 SEP 2010

Penny Booth

Feuding parents are made to attend ‘custody' classes - the programme is already under way in Surrey and during two evening sessions allows parents to find out how much damage feuding with their erstwhile partner does to their child(ren). The Times has got all the best stories (25 September page 35) and it is later in the pitch that the interesting facts come out - though not the correct technical terms. The number of divorces is falling but the number of couples making use of the court system to resolve contact disputes is actually rising.

So much, then, for the hopes of the next (which one?) generation to take parenthood more seriously than their personal partnership? Compulsory, and Cafcass funded, (the only exception being ‘danger' to parties) in Surrey as a ‘trial', the newspaper reports that in the family law review currently underway there might be movement afoot to make these kinds of classes compulsory for all such cases throughout the country. In this Separated Parent Information Programme ‘trial' 59% of the parents (who do not attend the same class together, I hasten to add) say that their behaviour has changed as a result of attending the sessions. Hmm.... bet it has, as they can now more easily compare notes with other separated parents about strategy.

I read a letter to a newspaper this week that was calling for the axing of child benefit. Holy Cow! I agree that having children is a personal choice (except for rape, lack of birth control, ‘accidents', etc - incidentally, most children are born as a result of sexual intercourse) and that people should take responsibility for their decisions to go ahead and have children. I agree that much on the basis that the children are yours, not mine, therefore your responsibility, rather than mine. The writer of that letter, who shall remain nameless as far as this column is concerned, calls for the phasing out of child benefit over the next few years to place back on the individual, rather than the rest of society, the responsibility for having and bringing up children. I agree that the elderly and the disabled do not ‘choose' to be so, and that payments for child benefit could go to the elderly and the disabled rather than those who chose to have the children.

Except, of course, it is not like that, is it? I simply do not see any government diligently passing on the savings in such a manner. In any case, if we selected the beneficiaries of benefits on that basis (their ‘choice', rather than any ‘misfortune' that has beset them) then you should deprive those who make themselves sick(er) because they smoke or take less exercise and therefore consign themselves to ill-health or disabling illnesses that blight their lives - in fact, why treat them in our NHS at all? See - not an easy argument is it?

The strongest argument for me, though, is that children are our future. I've said it before and will say it again - without children (yours, and other people's) what do we do in the future? They will help to make your roads, drive your trains, clear your drains, milk the cows for your dairy produce, kill rats, collect refuse, repair your teeth and treat your illnesses.

Family welfare benefits can come in many forms, but if you don't help to pay for children, the families producing the children of the future might not be so ‘available' when we get to the future. Incidentally - I'm not arguing for random reproduction, but for proper support for families. Suggesting that we do support families is currently undermined by media stories of unemployed and unemployable individuals (you know, usually the ones impregnating the young women who seem to think that ‘love changes everything'?) being unduly supported by the state. The latter don't help the concept of family support, and the difficulties of calculating costs of child-rearing make the task hard one. It is said that it costs £200,000 to raise a child, and that child benefit is a veritable drop in that ocean. True - but what is also true is that having children benefits everyone, so it is worth seeing the job through and making sure it's done properly.

So - intelligent couples put extra pain into divorce, do they? Sir Nicholas Wall is right when he says that some separating parents use their children like ammunition in a battlefield - up to 20,000 parents go to court each year to try to resolve their child access disputes and are, in reality, re-fighting their relationship battles -but all parents have the propensity do this, surely? Perhaps intelligent parents might be regarded as being the worst because they have the capacity and skill to be able to inflict more pain on the other party simply because they are cleverer about it. This is really no surprise, is it? Denial of contact is a great weapon, the children suffer and the parties perpetuate a dreadful dance around the remains of love and the domestic dream. It isn't only intelligent parents who dream. Is it really, though, that money has more to do with it all than mere intelligence? If you are more intelligent, you usually have more money - the two don't always go together, but there is that tendency. More money, that must mean there is more to fight over, then more to pay the advisers to argue for you in court, the more unpleasant and intractable the divorce could eventually become. Our divorce system and the sheer mechanics of how to get divorced and navigate through the icebergs in a cold sea hardly lend themselves to conciliation and kindness - especially after your domestic dream lies shattered. Just because you have money does not mean you avoid argument - often the opposite. At least when you have money you can buy a better quality of misery.

Penny sets the questions for Family Law journalCPD, a new way to gain CPD points by answering multiple choice questions based on the content of the journal.

She is an Honorary Research Fellow at Liverpool University Centre for the Study of the Child, the Family and the Law. Click here to follow Penny Booth on Twitter.

The views expressed by contributing authors are not necessarily those of Family Law or Jordan Publishing and should not be considered as legal advice.