DADS WHO WILL FIGHT TO MAKE THEIR DAY
TONY LEWIS plays happily on the beach with his sons. It is a scene played out the world over but for Tony it is the culmination of years of heartache. He is one of numerous dads who have had to fight for access to their children after their divorce - and he is one of the lucky ones who won his battle.
Throughout the English-speaking world an army of fathers is mobilising against the legal systems it believes are hopelessly biased against fathers. And the commanders are prepared to use militant tactics to win the battle. Australia's militant dads operate under the rather chilling name of the Blackshirts and have earned themselves a reputation for disturbing vigilante tactics in their efforts to secure access to children - standing outside single mothers' homes, making nuisance telephone calls, even abducting children involved in custody disputes.
Here in Britain, divorced and separated fathers are also getting tough. Fathers 4 Justice (F4J) was launched last December with a sit-down protest - by 200 Father Christmases - in the lobby of the Lord Chancellor's Department. The group now numbers 1,200 and has been compared to its Australian counterpart. This Friday, two days before Father's Day, F4J intends to get its message across to a wider audience, and members are anticipating mass arrests.
In the next month four F4J members go on trial, charged with criminal damage after their "purple door" campaign, in which the doors of several Court Welfare offices were painted the colour of international equality. So is this the thin end of the wedge? Are the methods of the Blackshirts coming to Britain? F4J's co-founder Matt O'Connor is adamant the groups have little in common and condemns the Blackshirts as a "thoroughly reprehensible bunch".
According to O'Connor, his group is a civil rights movement which, while it has no truck with intimidation, unapologetically embraces direct action as a way of getting what it wants - to end the "living bereavement" of fathers estranged from their children. To that end F4J seeks to raise public awareness and change the law to give fathers equal rights to see their children. It aims to achieve this within three years.
Many F4J members are prepared to go to jail if necessary. They have already picketed the homes of judges and lawyers involved in the family court system. Co-founder Tony Lewis admits: "I've picketed homes and they don't like it but we don't like being stopped from seeing our kids.
"Both parents should have equality of opportunity to be parents. Neither should be treated like second-class parents. Ending the injustice is what drives me and I'm prepared to go to jail over this."
Lewis, who lives in Great Yarmouth, classes himself one of the "lucky ones".
He has full residency of his two sons, James, eight, and Anthony, seven, but it took 22 court appearances and left him with debts of more than GBP 40,000.
"In many ways I'm a success of the system but the system is, by its adversarial nature, very destructive.
My ex-wife and I went to court and we scrapped good and proper. I was made to feel like a criminal. My advice to anyone is to keep out of court."
Instead, Lewis would like to see a "mediation service with teeth" for estranged couples, with the interests of the children at heart.
In 2001 more than 55,000 contact orders were made in the British courts, affecting more than 80,000 children.
Of these nearly half were flouted yet few were enforced by the courts that issued them. Most judges take the view that penalising the mother would add more stress to the situation. Matt O'Connor points out that such alternatives as community service orders, or a simple transfer of residency, could persuade recalcitrant mothers to comply.
The 1987 Children's Act took away the right of a father to be legal guardian to his children after several high-profile cases of children suffering at the hands of parents, but it made explicit the fact that children should retain the "love and care of both parents". O'Connor believes the system as it stands ignores this proviso.
Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, President of the Family Division, admits that 40 per cent of fathers lose contact with their children within two years of a relationship breakdown.
DRIVING INSTRUCTOR Mark Harris was forced to take on the legal system to gain access to his three daughters. He has made 132 appearances in court.
His increasing frustration has convinced him that direct action is the only way of getting his voice heard. He started picketing the homes of family court judges three years ago.
"I was at my 104th court hearing and I couldn't believe the judge's attitude, " he says. "She wasn't listening, she was supporting the mother regardless. I just thought I had to do something."
Today Harris finally enjoys contact with his children and his eldest daughter recently came to live with him in Plymouth. He fervently believes that the legal system is unfairly loaded against fathers battling to maintain a relationship with their children.
"There needs to be a legal presumption of contact for the father, " he says. "Mum can bring a new boyfriend into the house each week if she wants. They could be anyone, even a paedophile. No one knows, no one cares. Dad's the only person in the world who's not presumed fit to see his children.
"My experience of the legal system makes me convinced it's a corrupt industry. I've waved placards outside the homes of these judges. They live in palaces. That's why they do it. There's a whole industry of barristers, solicitors and child psychiatrists carving a fortune out of our misery."
And mud sticks. Fathers who are prevented from seeing their children in hearings that are held under a cloak of secrecy find that many people take the view that there must be a reason for contact to be withheld by the authorities.
"People assume there must be a problem with the fathers, " says Harris, "that there must be something more behind it, but there's not. It's too ridiculous for words. What passes for justice in a family court has to be seen to be believed."
O'Connor agrees that the current legal set-up does nothing to help. "If divorce is a burning house, then going to the family court is like emptying a plane-load of napalm on the situation."
Southampton barrister Michael Cox is no stranger to the machinations of the law, yet when his first marriage broke up and he was fighting for access to his three sons he found the very legal system in which he earns his living merely made the situation worse.
"My case was fairly typical: Mum was very bitter. I wanted to remain close to my children and the only weapon she could enforce against me was to withhold contact and she did so with gusto. The crux of the system is what's in the best interests of the child.
The system is by its very nature adversarial - appropriate in corporate law, but it has no place in families. It's not in the best interests of a child for each party to have to dig the dirt on the other, to denigrate and besmirch the efforts of the other parent. I say to fathers embarking on this process now - as the law stands, you're going to get shafted."
The commonality of experience between men of all ages and backgrounds has been a powerful recruitment tool for F4J. Hundreds of fathers, as well as grandparents who are denied access, are joining the movement each month.
THIS FRIDAY'S demonstration is being planned with military precision. O'Connor is prepared to give only limited information.
Hundreds of members will descend on a secret location in London and many are prepared to be arrested. There is likely, says O'Connor, to be an "almighty ruckus". It will be followed by another demonstration in Glasgow on Father's Day.
"The fact that people are willing to be hauled off to prison is testament to the strength of feeling out there. It's bloody heartbreaking stuff. We get people ringing up bereft because they can't see their grandchildren; fathers who haven't seen their kids in years. We're trying to make the injustice visible because the suffering is so great, " says O'Connor.
For Michael Cox, involvement in the effort to change a legal system he believes to be unjust is a matter of duty.
"I'm doing this for my sons. They'll be fathers one day and I don't want them to suffer like I did. Women didn't get the vote by asking nicely. You have to make waves.
I don't intend to get arrested on Friday but if push comes to shove, then so be it."
For more information log on to www. fathers-4-justice. org