There has been some interesting news filtering out from Scotland over the past few days. On Tuesday this week (6th May 2014), The Public Petitions Committee heard evidence on a petition calling for equal rights for unmarried fathers. The petition has been raised by Ron Park, an unmarried father of a young son whom he does not see because the child’s mother does not allow it. “There is no protection issue, no order to remove me, she simply felt like she wanted rid of me,” writes Mr Park on his blog.
I have previously blogged about the issues faced by unmarried fathers who do not have Parental Rights and Responsibilities – The continuing disadvantage of unmarried fathers - without PRR; which an unmarried father can only acquire by virtue of the relationship with the mother, in that the mother has to agree to have the father’s name on the birth certificate – or via a lengthy, time-consuming and expensive legal process. The case of Principal Reporter v K  highlights this lengthy procedure.
Parental Rights and Responsibilities afford parents not just responsibilities in the upbringing of their child, but certain rights, most notably the right to have the child live with them, or the right to maintain contact with the child. (Children Act (Scotland) 1995 (s)2). Those that gain automatic PRR are:
- the child’s mother;
- the child’s father where he is married to the mother at the time of the child’s conception or subsequently;
- the child’s father where he is registered as the father of a child on or after 4 May 2006.
But not unmarried fathers where the mother refuses to consent to the father’s name being on the child’s birth certificate.
I would like to clear one point up, during the Committee meeting, David Stewart MSP and chair of the Public Petitions Committee said ” My understanding, just looking through the brief, is that in England and Wales, there is a rationale in legislation of a presumption of shared parenting”. Well, no there isn’t. Section 11 of the Children and Families Act 2014 amends Section 1 of the Children Act 1989 by introducing a clause requiring the court to presume that involvement of a parent in the life of a child will further that child’s welfare. The law makes the presumption “rebuttable” which means that it does not apply if a parent cannot be involved without putting the child at risk of suffering harm, or if evidence is presented to the court which suggests the parent’s involvement would put the child at risk of suffering harm. The term “involvement” is not defined, but a late amendment to Section 11 specifies that it can be of any kind, either direct or indirect, but does not indicate any particular division of a child’s time – so while involvement could mean shared parenting, it could also mean that sending a child a birthday card once a year is involvement – or simply paying child support is involvement, with no actual contact, either direct or indirect. At the time of writing, there is no commencement order for section 11, the word on the wire is that there “may” be a commencement order in the autumn this year – possibly. In any case – involvement is not shared parenting – it would be like to trying to compare a scabby donkey with a mythical unicorn….
However, the very fact that MSPs at the meeting mentioned shared parenting in positive terms is very encouraging – I hope the politicians south of the border are taking note.
So, why does there need to be a change in the current law regarding unmarried fathers gaining Parental Rights and Responsibilities? Rebecca McQuillan, writing in the Herald on Wednesday this week says:
The law is out of kilter with the times. From next April, couples will be able to share parental leave. No longer will there be an assumption that women care and men work. And yet when it comes to allocating parental rights, the system has an in-built bias where men are regarded more sceptically than women, even with suspicion. There are some drastically unsuitable mothers out there, but the law generally views women as fit parents until proven otherwise, while unmarried men not lucky enough to be named on the birth certificate must shake off the taint of being inherently irresponsible. The gravest failure of the current system is in depriving children of relationships with their fathers. The importance of strong family relationships in producing secure, confident, optimistic children has become a guiding light in government policy on everything from improving health and boosting employment to reducing offending. A Ben Nevis of PhD theses has been written about the value of strong male role models, especially for boys. Children benefit from having a loving dad as well as a loving mum – who knew?
While unmarried fathers are disadvantaged and discriminated against if their name is not on their child’s birth certificate, the child is denied official and formal acknowledgement of their paternal bloodline. In his written evidence to the committee, Mr Parks said:
“It’s obvious the laws in place are to protect children, and this core value should not change, but an amendment should be added to ensure that men have a right to prove parentage of a child definitively so as they can then be involved in their child’s life.”
Without Parental Rights and Responsibilities, a father can not be considered to be a “relevant person” with regard to court hearings involving their child/ren (mothers automatically have PRR, and therefore are automatically classed as a relevant person). It is astounding that a father without PRR has to face a lengthy, costly and wholly unnecessary legal procedure to gain status as a “relevant person” – even if that father has in place a contact order or other (s)11 order, or where the father has a longstanding and close relationship with his child. The onus is on the father to prove that he has an active involvement with his child/ren. As things stand, unmarried fathers without PRR will continue to have to apply for “relevant person” status – however, should there be a change in legislation, unmarried fathers would not need to endure this drawn-out legal procedure; and would be legally recognised as parents , and therefore end the current discrimination against unmarried fathers.
Although John Lammond MSP stated at the start of the meeting (after hearing verbal evidence from Mr Park’s mother on his behalf) that there are “no plans to amend law currently”, the very fact that this thorny issue is being discussed by Scottish politicians, and using phrases such as “a very brave petition” and “important” is heartening indeed. Committee convener David Stewart said it would “pursue this with as much activity as it possibly can”, and the committee agreed to seek further information from the Scottish government, the Law Society of Scotland, the Family Law Association, Families Need Fathers, Scottish Women’s Aid and the UK minister.
While we wait for political furtherance on Mr Park’s petition – all we can do in the meantime is to continue advocating to the wider world the benefits of shared parenting to children, help and support parents who are trying to work together for their children and putting their differences to one side and counter the voices that seek to remove fathers from their children’s lives.
Below you will find a link to the recorded video of the Committee meeting which discusses the petition:
If you would like to read more about Ron Park’s fight for equality, you can access his blog here – Fighting For Alex
With thanks to Ron Park – your determination, and your love for your son are a shining beacon of hope.