Shared parenting legislation is not in the interests of children

By Nuffield Foundation

Proposed legislation to introduce and enforce a presumption of shared parenting time for separating couples is not in the interests of children.

According to a briefing paper published today by the Department of Social Policy and Intervention at the University of Oxford and funded by the Nuffield Foundation, the term ‘shared parenting’ has no legal status but generally refers to a child spending an equal amount of time with each parent. Two Private Members’ Bills currently before Parliament seek to introduce and enforce a default position that children should spend a substantial amount of time with both parents in the event of separation.

Academics from the University of Oxford and Australia have analysed the proposed legislation in light of research evidence on shared parenting, with particular reference to Australia, which introduced similar legislation in 2006. They concluded:

  • Introducing a default presumption that children should spend a substantial amount of time with both parents would overturn the provision in the Children Act 1989 that the welfare of the child should be paramount in deciding contact issues.
  • There is no empirical evidence that increasing the amount of time spent with a non-resident parent improves outcomes for children. It is the quality of the relationship between parents and between parents and children, as well as practical resources such as housing and income that are important for children’s well-being, not equal or near equal parenting time.
  • Shared parenting works best when separated parents are co-operative and flexible. However cases that end up in court are often characterised by conflict between parents and concerns about child welfare. Therefore the cases subject to shared parenting legislation will be those in which shared parenting is least likely to be successful.
  • Evidence from Australia, which has introduced similar changes, shows frequent misunderstanding of the legislation; an increased focus on father’s rights over children’s best interests; and an increased reluctance from mothers to disclose violence and abuse. Indeed it has been so problematic that additional legislation has been presented to the Australian Parliament to deal with the safety issues.
  • The legislation would primarily affect the small minority of separating parents (10%) who seek a decision on contact from the family court. However, there could be consequences for all children of separating parents, as parents often reach agreements in the ‘shadow of the law’, as advised by solicitors.

Mavis Maclean, joint Director of the Oxford Centre for Family Law and Policy and one of the briefing paper’s authors said:

“Children benefit from a meaningful relationship with both parents, but there is no evidence for legislating to prioritise shared parenting time over any other parenting arrangement. Instead, we should identify ways to assist separated parents to think carefully about arrangements that will best serve their children’s needs, and to put those above their own views.”

Sharon Witherspoon, Deputy Director of the Nuffield Foundation said:

“The best parenting arrangement can depend on the individual circumstances of each family, and introducing the presumption of shared parenting time risks applying a ‘one size fits all’ approach to families. This does not seem the best way to address the issue of ensuring that fathers in particular are able to see their children, and it won’t solve the problem of parents who fail to comply with contact orders.”

Ends

Download the briefing paper, Caring for children after parental separation: would legislation for shared parenting time help children? (PDF)

Contact: Fran Bright, Communications Manager
Phone: 020 7681 9623
Email: fbright@nuffieldfoundation.org.

Notes to editors

1.Caring for children after parental separation: would legislation for shared parenting time help children? is part of a series of family policy briefing papers published by the Department of Social Policy and Intervention at the University of Oxford.

2.The paper has been written by:

  • Belinda Fehlberg, Melbourne Law School, University of Melbourne.
  • Bruce Smyth, Associate Professor at the Australian Demographic & Social Research Institute, Australian National University, Canberra.
  • Mavis Maclean, Joint Director of the Oxford Centre for Family Law and Policy (OXFLAP).
  • Cerdiwen Roberts, Senior Research Fellow, Department of Social Policy and Intervention at the University of Oxford and a member of OXFLAP.

3.The Shared Parenting Orders Bill presented by Brian Binley MP, is currently scheduled for second reading on 17 June 2011: http://services.parliament.uk/bills/2010-11/sharedparentingorders.html

4.The Children (Access to Parents) Bill, introduced by Charlie Elphicke MP, is scheduled for second reading on 9 September 2011: http://services.parliament.uk/bills/2010-11/childrenaccesstoparents.html

5.The Nuffield Foundation is an endowed charitable trust that aims to improve social well-being in the widest sense. It funds research and innovation in education and social policy and also works to build capacity in education, science and social science research. The Nuffield Foundation has funded this project, but the views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Foundation. More information is available at www.nuffieldfoundation.org

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