Life after parental separation: research challenges law change proposal

21 November 2012

Government plans to amend the 1989 Children Act by introducing a presumption of shared parenting are well-intentioned but misguided, say the authors of new research into childhood experience of family break-ups.

Courts should retain their current discretion to put the needs and wishes of individual children first when considering contact disputes between parents, say researchers, who have surveyed the opinions of hundreds of young adults with experience of family break-up.

The research report –Taking a longer view of contact: The perspectives of young adults who experienced parental separation in their youth’ documents the reflections of young adults as they look back on post-separation contact arrangements.

The research, a joint project between the Universities of Sussex and Oxford and funded by the Nuffield Foundation, is the first major study in the UK to ask young adults who experienced parental separation in their youth what they thought about the contact they had with their non-resident parent.

It contributes a unique dimension to knowledge about what makes contact a positive experience for children.  By tracking their experiences of contact through their childhood and into adulthood, the study also highlights the long-term impact of contact arrangements on parent-child relationships – information crucially important to policy makers and the family courts.  

The report’s findings, based on interviews with a national sample of nearly 400 young adults aged between 18 and 35, are timely, as they challenge government plans to alter the 1989 Children Act.

The report’s findings, in summary:

  • It was rare for respondents to blame the resident parent for contact not happening or being disrupted. Most respondents said that this had been the responsibility of the non-resident parent or that it had been their own decision.
  • Resident parents were much more likely to have actively encouraged contact than to have undermined it.
  • Key ingredients in successful contact include the absence of parental conflict; a good pre-separation relationship between the child and the (future) non-resident parent; the non-resident parent demonstrating his/her commitment to the child and the child being consulted about the arrangements.
  • The continuity of contact, and its quality, are more important to successful contact than its frequency and there is no optimal level of contact.
  • The child’s pre-separation relationship with the non-resident parent predict both the quality of contact and the child’s relationship with the non-resident parent through childhood and into adulthood.
  • Children of separating parents develop a mature insight into their own needs and should be consulted far more routinely over arrangements for their future. Coercing them into arrangements they dislike is unlikely to be in their short or long-term best interests.

The Justice Select Committee is currently considering a new draft clause that would promote a change in the way the family courts currently deal with cases of disputed contact arrangements by introducing a presumption of shared parenting.  Critics consider this would undermine a fundamental principle of the Act: decision-making based on the needs of the individual child.

Jane Fortin, Emeritus Professor of Law at the University of Sussex, who led the Nuffield Foundation-funded study, said: “The strongest theme from our study is the importance of tailoring contact arrangements to the needs and wishes of the individual child in their particular circumstances. This is best achieved by retaining the courts’ discretion to determine whether or not the welfare of the particular child in question would be furthered by the involvement sought by the litigant parent. To commit the court to presuming that such involvement will further the child’s welfare is to apply a simplistic, broad-brush approach to the subtle complexities of the child-parent relationship.”

Notes for Editors

‘Taking a longer view of contact: The perspectives of young adults who experienced parental separation in their youth’, Jane Fortin, Joan Hunt, Lesley Scanlan is published by the Sussex Law School, University of Sussex. ISBN: 978-0-9574831-0-1

Download a summary of the report

Full report on the University of Sussex website

The research was funded by the Nuffield Foundation, but the views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Foundation.

The Authors

Jane Fortin is Emeritus Professor at the Sussex Law School, Sussex University. She led the pilot which preceded this study and has written extensively on law and policy relating to children and families.

Joan Hunt is Senior Research Fellow in the Oxford Centre for Family Law and Policy, which is part of the Department for Social Policy and Intervention, University of Oxford. In addition to conducting several empirical studies of contact after parental separation she has produced reviews of research and policy briefing papers.

Lesley Scanlan is a psychologist who during this study worked as a Research Associate at the University of Sussex. She has researched and written extensively on children’s perspectives of psychological and legal aspects of the divorce process.