Driscoll on Cyriax


March 17, 2002

New deal for divorced fathers
It took Oliver Cyriax four years to gain access to his son. Margarette Driscoll hears how he is organising a revolution in family law
When Oliver Cyriax became embroiled in a legal battle with his former wife over access to his son he had two things in his favour. As a former lawyer he could represent himself in court. His second career, as the author of medical textbooks, reflected his facility with words and brought in royalties.
Even so, it took 26 court cases before he achieved a decent amount of time with his son. In the first three years, by dint of perseverance, he pushed up the level of contact from one hour a week to three. After four years his son was allowed to stay overnight.

Now they enjoy the sort of time together that he believes they should have had in the first place; every other weekend, an evening on alternate weeks and part of the school holidays. There is happy evidence of the nine-year-olds presence strewn around the house  a Harry Potter trivia quiz, a plastic fort under the kitchen table  and, strangely, since the arrangement was set in stone by the courts, his relationship with his former wife has improved. I can even remember why I married her, he says.

Cyriaxs case is remarkable only because of his extraordinary tenacity. Every year, about 110,000 such disputes reach the family courts, many of which drag on for years. Though the Children Act of 1989 was supposed to sweep away old notions of custody and access in favour of a new era of shared parenting, it hasnt happened, a reality that is  belatedly  being recognised by the legal establishment.

Last month, in the wake of a report for the lord chancellors office, Making Contact Work, Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, president of the family division, told The Sunday Times that since the Children Act came into being, shared parenting had been thought out, but not sorted out.

Thirty years ago, when she began sitting on the family bench, the mother was automatically assumed to be the central figure in a childs life.

Now, she says: I cannot emphasise enough how important both parents are.

The importance of the mother and father in a childs life is the guiding principle that has driven Cyriax through his legal battles and in advising more than 1,000 other fathers fighting in the courts for access to their children.

But unlike Butler-Sloss, he believes the only way to properly achieve shared parenting is for the legal establishment to set out a norm  something like the time he shares with his son now  so that ultimately only cases that have good reason to deviate from that should come before the courts.

If it is regarded as normal for children to see their parents on alternate weekends, he says, normal families shouldnt have to litigate for five years in the hope of one day attaining normal contact.

New Approaches to Contact, the organisation he founded, is holding a conference in London next week to hammer out an agenda for change. Judges, solicitors and mediators are flying in from America and Australia to discuss how Britain might adapt procedures.

In Florida, clear guidelines are set down for normal contact, even down to timings. Weekend visits are from 6pm Friday to 6pm Sunday. The Christmas Day handover takes place at 4pm.

In California, a flow chart handed to separating parents tells them exactly what is expected of them and what they will have to consider in coming to an agreement. A mediator takes a proactive role in sorting things out. Court is a last, not first, resort. In Britain, as family law works on the principle that every case is different, there is no general information, no guideline and no expected outcome.

Across America, mediation and court welfare reports are undergone before a hearing starts. Here, courts order welfare reports, which, until recently, were carried out by untrained probation officers whose recommendations determined whether the non-resident parent had any access to the child.

This is the bit of the system that most angered Cyriax. In some cases, the fact that a couple were in court would be enough to recommend almost no contact. In the looking-glass world of the family courts, fathers can be prevented from seeing their children for the most trivial of reasons.

A child who falls asleep in the car is over-tired. One who doesnt is over-hyped. Cyriax knows of a man who was not allowed to have his children because he cooked lumpy mashed potatoes.

Cyriax already had a daughter, Holly, now 17, from a previous marriage with whom he had maintained a loving relationship and, when it came to fighting to see his son, it was this that gave him confidence. He and Hollys mother had remained on friendly terms and both recognised each others role in Hollys life.

A lot of men give up, he says. If its a first child they think, Perhaps the officials are right, perhaps I cant look after him or hell be better off without me. But because I had Holly I knew they were wrong. I knew I could be a good father.

The level of unhappiness engendered by the family courts was evident in the correspondence that followed this papers recent interview with Butler-Sloss. One man wrote to say he had seen his daughter for just 15 minutes in six years. Another, that he had given up trying to see his children after repeated legal rebuffs. They are now in their twenties. I do not know if they have children of their own, he said.

A man about to return to court for the fifth time said the despair he felt when his wife unilaterally reduced the frequency of visits to his children from three times to once a week was profound. I wept, and so did my sons, he said.

Another was in the surreal position of being praised for his fathering ability by one judge (because of the care he had shown his stepchildren) while being banned from seeing his own children by another.

With one in three marriages ending in divorce, both the cost to the system and the emotional impact on families need to be lessened.

Dr Hamish Cameron, a consultant child psychiatrist, says the present system is very damaging. Drawn out court cases are exhausting for the child, exhausting for the parents and exhausting for the legal system, and produce nothing but unhappiness. The harm it does to the child is very deep. Often it does not show in childhood but comes out in adulthood when they are trying to form bonds of their own.

Reform of the family courts is inevitable, says Cyriax. The government says we believe in the family, it is wrong to walk away from the family, but the particular basket into which they put family law has a hole in the bottom, he says. When it comes to the crunch the courts recognise the rights of one parent, not both.

Butler-Slosss admission of how her thinking on shared parenting has evolved means change is filtering down from the top.

There are some bright people in the lord chancellors department, says Cyriax. They realise the family courts shouldnt stop children from seeing their parents merely because of divorce. Behind the facade, officials welcome the need for change.