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Twenty years on and one in three children are losing touch with their fathers when parents’ split, new research shows 

Parents’ failure to separate amicably is leading to an increasing number of children losing permanent contact with their father according to a landmark study into the effects of family breakdown in the UK.  

The study of over 4000 parents and children was commissioned by family lawyers at Mishcon de Reya to mark the 20th anniversary of the Children Act which was implemented in November 1989 to improve the welfare of youngsters caught in the middle of parental separation.  

The report highlights the negative effects of separation on children and shows, despite the Act’s good intentions, in practice the law is not working – leaving the UK counting the financial costs of litigation, court resources and increasing numbers of socially excluded children. 

Seventy per cent of parents quizzed by the law firm cited their child’s welfare as the main priority during separation. However, children said they felt used (19 per cent), isolated (38 per cent) and alone (37 per cent). Many admitted they turned to drink and drugs, played truant from school or self harmed. For 38 per cent of children the separation meant they never saw their father again.  

What parents say

A quarter of parents surveyed believe that their child was so traumatised by their separation that they self harmed or contemplated suicide. Despite this,

50 per cent admitted putting their children through an intrusive court process over access issues and living arrangements. Nearly half (49 per cent) admitted to deliberately protracting the legal process in order to secure their desired outcome and two thirds (68 per cent) confessed to indiscriminately using their children as ‘bargaining tools’ when they separated. 

A staggering 20 per cent of separated parents admitted that they actively set out to make their partners experience ‘as unpleasant as possible’ regardless of the effect this had on their children’s feelings.  

What children say

Half of the children surveyed said that their views were disregarded by both of their parents during the separation.   

Almost half of children polled (42 percent) witnessed aggressive rows between their parents, while a further 17 percent were caught in the middle of violent fights. A quarter (24 per cent) admitted they were forced by one parent to lie to the other and 15 per cent were asked to spy on their mother or father.  

As a result, almost one in ten children (8%) considered suicide as an escape and a third sought solace in drug or alcohol abuse. The resulting effect to society is captured in the fact that 10% felt so angry and alone because of their parents’ behaviour that they turned to crime. 

The financial cost

As well as the emotional effect on children, statistics from the Legal Services Commission reveal that Legal Aid funding for separating parents to go to court to resolve child care arrangements is costing £151million annually – enough to employ more than 5000 extra social workers.  

Mishcon de Reya’s Head of Family Law Sandra Davis said: “This research highlights that despite their best intentions, parents are often using their children as emotional footballs.  They don’t have the tools to co-parent effectively following separation and their only solution is to turn to the courts.  Children – alongside the economy – are suffering because of this. 

 “The millions of pounds spent each year on Legal Aid, running the courts and CAFCASS could be better spent educating parents about their children’s needs and gaining an understanding of how to resolve and avoid long term disputes and reduce hostility.” 

The solution

Davis is now calling on the Government to set up National Family Therapy centres. These would be funded by diverting public expenditure on Legal Aid and savings on the running costs the courts and CAFCASS. Couples who would otherwise pay privately to go to court would be charged on a sliding scale, similar to counseling schemes run by charities such as Relate. 

She said: “Litigation should be the last, not the first, resort for the resolution of parental disagreements. Despite the best intentions of the judiciary, CAFCASS, specialist family law practitioners and experts the process remains fundamentally adversarial and blame focused. Whilst the courts are able to impose solutions on parents, they can’t resolve the root cause of disputes which is necessary before parents are able to co-parent effectively after they separate.” 

Two thirds (64 per cent) of separated parents quizzed as part of the study said that if counselling was available they would consider attending. 

Last week Mishcon de Reya invited key opinion formers to a debate at Westminster Palace (Houses of Parliament) to discuss how best to improve the legal process and minimize the impact of parental separation on children.  

Panel members included:

  • Tim Loughton, Shadow Minister for the Department for Children, Schools and Families
  • The Rt. Hon. Lord Justice Munby
  • The Rt. Hon. Lord Justice Wall
  • Earl of Listowel, Treasurer of the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Children,
  • Sandra Davis, Head of family law, Mishcon de Reya
  • Bob Reitemeier, CEO of The Children’s Society.

Said Davis: “Action is needed to protect childen from the worst excesses of parental conflict. Therapeutic input, not litigation, is the answer and will reduce the emotional and financial cost of separation.” 


Media contact: Alice Bruce, Sean Williams or Chris Lawrence on 020 7781 2300

Headshots of Sandra Davis are available as high res images. 

Editors’ notes: Research undertaken among a representative sample of 2,000 individuals who’d experienced divorce/separation in the past 20 years (since the introduction of the Children Act, 1989) as parents. The study was carried out between 29th July and 3rd August 2009 for Mishcon de Reya. 

* Research undertaken among a representative sample of 2,000 individuals who’d experienced a divorce as a child in the past 20 years (since the introduction of the Children Act, 1989). The study was carried out between 13th and 19th March 2009 for Mishcon de Reya. 

Costs to the taxpayers based on the most recent figures available from the Legal Services Commission (LSC). LSC spent £13 million on funding family mediation in 2007/08. The overall spend on Private Law Civil representation for the last three years was: 

Year Payments
2005-06 140,504,000
2006-07 143,523,000
2007-08 150,757,000

“There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is
striking at the root.”   — Henry David Thoreau


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