Suella Fernandes was a member of the Education Select Committee, and is MP for Fareham.
On June 8th, the country will have the chance to choose a Conservative government, with Theresa May’s steady hand at the helm. And as we embark on a new journey of self-government, forthright leadership is needed now more than ever.
If we secure a strong majority, we will have a special opportunity to remedy the “burning injustices” at home that the Prime Minister so eloquently talked about in her first speech on the steps of Downing Street. One of those injustices lies in our antiquated family justice system. So I I hope that our manifesto includes a pledge to bring about wholesale reform of an unfair and anachronistic regime. We have the chance to send the message that the Conservatives are pro-family, pro-justice – and that a child’s well-being is strengthened by relationships with both parents.
Children with a meaningful relationship with both parents are less likely to experience depression, teenage pregnancy and delinquency. Conversely, children without a father in their life often struggle to reach their full potential academically, socially and professionally.
So, firstly, Child Arrangement Orders need to be robustly enforced. These orders are made by courts to regulate the contact and residence of children upon divorce, but can be breached with impunity, because courts are slow to respond and reluctant to penalise non-compliant parents. This sends the damaging message that court orders are optional, not mandatory, and that the relationship with the non-resident parent is meaningless, rather than crucial. In the worst cases the non-resident parent (usually, but not always, the father) can be denied contact with their child for several years.
Robust enforcement is better for the family and for society, and so a tougher approach is needed. A three strikes approach is long overdue, under which residence should be transferred, if that is safe, and community service should actually, and not theoretically, be imposed on parents who breach the order. Other options, such as the confiscation of driving licences or passports, should also be considered.
Secondly, a rebuttable presumption in favour of shared parenting should be established when determining the contact and residence of the children. Every child has a right to a meaningful relationship with both parents but, at present, the law does not expressly make that clear. In the worst cases, parental involvement can amount to a birthday card or a Christmas card and the non-resident parent can be airbrushed out of their child’s life. This goes hand in hand with reform of child maintenance: non-resident parents must not be allowed to get away with not paying child support by declaring themselves self-employed. This loophole needs to be tied up urgently, as set out by my colleague David Burrowes in a Ten Minute Rule Bill last week.
Third, we urgently need to open up our family courts. Far too many children are taken into care for wholly inadequate and poorly argued reasons, according to Sir James Munby, President of the Family Division. Only the glare of publicity will enable this to stop – so we need to remove the cloak of secrecy and open up our family courts.
Fourth, most family disputes need not see the inside of a courtroom. Better incentives to use mediation or solicitor negotiation are needed, for example by virtue of a costs penalty for parties who draw out the process. Saving costs, time and heartache should be priorities.
Fifth, England’s fault-based divorce needs change. Not all marriages end because of fault, but our law nonetheless promotes the allocation of blame, setting parties on a confrontational path that fuels animosity and costs. A commission should report on whether it is now time for no-fault divorce.
Sixth, financial remedies and maintenance need to be updated. Why is England the divorce capital of the world? Because of the outdated notion that mothers ought really to be at home. However, in today’s world, both parents often work, and women are no longer seen as weak, dependent creatures to be looked after. Our divorce laws need to change to reflect this, as they do in Scotland and North America.
Seventh, cohabiting couples with children are the fastest-growing type of family in the UK, increasing from 1.5 million to 3.3 million between 1996 and 2016. But they have no rights in the event of a spli,t and we should be asking how to strike the right balance so that family life is strengthened not weakened.
Eighth, the enforceability of prenuptial agreements should be set out by Parliament. To support marriage, there is a need to recognise that people are getting married later in life, with assets earned before their union. This group of people should be protected, if the parties so agree it; not put at risk, and a commission should look into this.
With the support of MPs from both sides of the House, I recently presented a Ten Minute Rule Bill recently on this subject. A commission should report back to Parliament after exploring all of these issues in detail. We need to get family justice reform on the manifesto and begin the work of creating a family law system fit for the 21st century.