Interview by Hugh Logue, Legal News Editor
Thirty six years ago Alick Elithorn, a child psychiatrist and father, was advised by his solicitor acting in his divorce that to apply for 'child custody' was a hopeless exercise. He commented at the time that "your own lawyer, in this respect, is often your very worst enemy".
Like many fathers who lose contact with their children, his sense of powerlessness drove him to take matters into his own hands. In May 1974 Elithorn and financial consultant Keith Parkin set up an organisation to campaign for equal parental rights. They named it Families Need Fathers.
Today the organisation has 51 local branches across the UK, a network of 300 volunteers, 16 members of staff and annual funding of over half a million pounds. Today is also the current Chief Executive's last day of work.
After almost four years in the role, Jon Davies has brought Families Need Fathers (FNF) into the centre of the debates around families and children and more than doubled the number of staff and local branches. The father of two joined FNF from working in Lambeth managing Sure Start and Children's Centre programmes before which he had a varied career ranging from a TV technician, a full-time local government politician and a teacher in inner-city London.
Davies has distanced FNF from the 'angry dads' label and the opinions of the charity are now welcomed by the family justice establishment, so much so that Lord Justice Wall was the keynote speaker at their AGM this year.
So having turned FNF into a respected charity, why is Davies leaving now? "A combination of factors, mostly ‘job done'. I was brought in to take FNF from a volunteer led and rather neglected charity into an organisation that could speak for the children of the so-called ‘non-resident' parents and I think I have achieved that.
"It may be a crazy time to move to another job with economic gloom everywhere but it just felt right. My Damascene moment was seeing three and a half of our four policy objectives listed in the coalition programme."
There is still a strong belief amongst FNF members that the family legal aid system is unfair, where one parent can access legal aid and the other often can't. Davies believes that the legal aid budget would be much better spent on early intervention through parenting support, mediation and other outcome-focused activities.
"Two successive governments have agreed that the Family Courts need reform.
"I have met many in the system and, perhaps I have been lucky, but they have all seemed to care deeply about the outcomes for the children and their families. What we need however is a system that is not prone to massive delays, manipulation by parents unwilling to abide by court decisions or penalty free false allegations that can derail the whole process.
"We need systems like in Florida where parenting decisions are reached between the parties through education and support far from the adversarial court system."
Families Need Fathers are behind the recent Shared Parenting Bill presented in the House of Commons. The legislation would provide for the making of Shared Parenting Orders following separation or divorce and would create a legal presumption that such Orders enhance the welfare of the child unless certain exceptions apply. It would also provide appropriate safeguards for cases where shared parenting is not the best solution. Critics argue that more legislation will lead to more litigation and further acrimony between parents that will harm the children.
"FNF always tried to direct members and the public away from the courts. I don't think a presumption of Shared Parenting would be at odds with this.
"We are proposing that, except where there are serious risk factors, an automatic presumption that both parents should have significant parenting roles post-separation or divorce is in the children's best interest.
"Owing to the Family Court secrecy it is difficult to get a great amount of evidence but we know that by designating one parent ‘resident' and the other ‘non-resident' we are already creating barriers to the fair sharing of benefits, tax credits, housing rights etc.
"We feel that this presumption is in line with the best interests of children and will help deter the angry mothers and fathers who use the courts, and sadly their children, as part of their divorce and separation battles."
Newspapers have increasingly reported about errant fathers succumbing to the new child support powers given to the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission including allowing them to confiscate property, have them disqualified from driving or even imprisoned. Are these powers proportionate?
"Good parents support their children but some of these new powers are too draconian to be used much and in some cases will hinder a parent's ability to pay, classically by taking a taxi driver's license away. The scope for martyrdom is also a factor.
"I realise that the Commission has tried to be more efficient but it is frightening that quite junior civil servants can make life affecting decisions without recourse to court checks unless initiated by the citizen concerned."
In May 2004 the fathers rights campaign sprang to the world's attention when two members of Fathers4Justice (F4J) threw two condoms filled with purple-dyed flour into the chamber of the House of Commons, one of which hit then-Prime Minister Tony Blair. However, any public sympathy for the campaign evaporated when stunts became increasingly disturbed and it was reported that members of the group had plotted to kidnap the son of Tony Blair. Has FNF had to work hard on distancing itself from these groups?
"F4J were brilliant campaigners who either didn't want to or couldn't make the step up to lobbying and evidence-based campaigning. I think history will judge them kindly for raising issues of which most people were ignorant.
"In terms of fundraising I think that ironically F4J helped us by making the case for ‘Fathers' amongst organisations who wanted to support the issues but did not want to be associated with their methods."
Could the relationship between family lawyers and FNF be improved?
"We have good relationships with many law firms around the country who offer pro bono support to our branches. One even hosts our meetings. There will be others who will not be so friendly but I hope all lawyers will look beyond the ‘angry dads' prejudice to see us as an organisation that can help their clients through our helpline, 51 local groups and extensive website. I have been particularly impressed by how Resolution has engaged with FNF."
Those lawyers might want reconsider their prejudice as there are benefits for those who work with FNF. Davies says subtly: "We never recommend a lawyer but many people use us as a source of reference."