Disenfranchised, Disgruntled and Nowhere to Turn – Father’s Day Without Fathers. What Price Justice?

You may have noticed if you have been paying attention to your twitter feed, Facebook or the News that lawyers are up in arms about cuts to Legal Aid. Here at Rosie Bracher Solicitors we are not bucking the trend. It’s got nothing to do with our fees and everything to do with concern that the clients we have helped over the years know the value of good legal advice when it comes to what seems like impossibly unresolvable issues on relationship breakdown.

Of course here I am not talking about the 80% of the public who are able to resolve their issues around contact and residence on separation without involving mediators or solicitors but those cases where for one reason or another the parents fail to reach any agreement or lasting agreement – the impact of which can be the devastating loss of a child’s relationship with their father.

Since the 1st of April 2013 a new Act of Parliament (LAPSO for short) took away Legal Aid for all but the most difficult of family cases. That isn’t quite accurate, the Act allows you to have Legal Aid in any case where it can be evidenced (and the way you do this is quite complicated involving letters from a Refuge, social worker or Health professional or a Court order for example) that you have been the victim of domestic abuse or the child had been the victim of child abuse (by the other parent).

So what is wrong with that? Well, in my 20 years of experience I have met many young men who have been accused of fairly tame allegations which sound more like the inevitable kind of fallings out between tempestuous young lovers but who are then castigated as perpetrators of domestic violence. I have also from time to time come across cases where false allegations of violence have been made and I have met a few men who have accepted a caution when things have got out of hand and their partners have walloped them one and they have then restrained their partners only to then have their partner call the police accusing them of being the perpetrator. I have also met a number of men who were the direct victims of domestic violence from their female partners. More often I meet young men who have been emotionally abused by their partners but who don’t complain of “domestic abuse”. Indeed men who are victims of domestic abuse rarely own up to being so.

Let me get one things straight here. I am not an apologist for domestic abuse and most serious domestic abuse, particularly violence is male to female and even when it’s not in most cases it is the male who can, and does, do far more damage to the female hence the risks are higher if he resorts to violence. The statistics showing that 2 women a week are killed through domestic violence have been stable for donkeys years and those figures are a damning indictment in relation to male on female violence. I am, on the issue of Domestic Violence, against it in all its forms. Male to female or female to male. A fair justice system does not however assume that the fairer sex is not capable of duplicitous, deceitful and abusive behaviour even if evidentially she is less prone to the more violent end of the spectrum of domestic abuse.

But back to fathers. This is Father’s Day after all.

This Father’s Day I am asking that we spare a thought for all those young father’s for whom the end of relationship may now mean the end of their hopes of being a father. A month ago I was asked to explain the impact of the changes to legal aid to a co ordinator of a young father’s group. She explained to me that since April many of the young fathers she helps had expressed despair that without legal aid they were entirely at the whim of their ex partners as to whether they had any relationship with their child or not.

For many young men life can be a bit of a blur from their teens to their late 20’s. Most tearaway young men are not out of control and if they are, not irredeemably so. As ever it was when a baby comes a long the female of the species by and large has to deal with the immediate consequences of that development and, if very young, quickly has to develop the maturity that comes with parenthood. It can be harder for a young man. That can make for a bitter relationship breakdown and bitter recrimination from young mothers (and their families) who see the poor behaviour but not the potential for the young tearaway or inadequate partner to become a loving and capable parent.

Legal aid has helped many young fathers establish lasting relationships with their children overcoming serious obstacles and resistance from ex partners to establish meaningful loving and lifelong relationships. Without legal aid what hope for these young men?

I hope that this government or the next will reverse the changes brought about to family legal aid but until they do young men will need to think carefully about the context of their relationship with their ex partners and if they have been subjected to domestic abuse which has had an impact on their emotional well being and health young men need to be encouraged to seek support, guidance and legal advice.

Nothing of course prevents such fathers using other resources such as Relate and Mediation but my worry is that there is a certain mother who knows that by refusing to attend Mediation (which can only take place voluntarily) they are in effect cutting off any avenue for the absent father unless that father can afford to go to Court or get legal aid. Young men need all the help we can give them as lawyers in this respect and educating them to understand where and how to get advice is a first start.

Otherwise disenfranchised, disgruntled and feeling they have no way of resolving matters legally many will turn to their mobile phones and Facebook to air their grievances. Perhaps turn up on doorsteps when they have had one too many and generally make a nuisance of themselves. Such young men will then find that the Criminal Law has evolved to make criminals of such behaviour and if given a harassment warning and they then send more texts or make contact with their children’s mothers (even just to plead to see their children), that they may end up in jail for little more than a few text messages. This blog is not about the Protection from Harassment Act (that is for another day).

In the meantime young men who are struggling to establish relationships with their children may benefit from trying to pay for “unbundled” legal advice from a specialist family solicitor. The new Legal aid rules do have some exceptional funding criteria which may help fathers faced with extremely serious allegations and those with learning disabilities or difficulties for example. Such fathers would be well advised to see if they can afford even an hours interview to establish their rights. From there they might find they can afford to atleast instruct a solicitor to draft a letter to the other parent (putting down a marker of their wish to have contact), or draft their Court application, even if they then go it alone. Whilst even limited advice and assistance will still cost hundreds of pounds it need not cost the thousands of pounds it would cost to instruct a lawyer to do the entire process. It may be just enough to get their foot in the door and to establish the first step back to engaged fatherhood.