A parliamentary committee has voiced "significant concerns" over Government plans to introduce a presumption in custody cases that it is in a child's best interests for both parents to remain involved in his or her upbringing after separation.
Ministers overruled the recommendations of last year's Norgrove Report when they wrote the "shared parenting" clause into the draft Children and Families Bill, which will reform the operation of family courts and address long-standing complaints from fathers that their rights to access to children have been overlooked.
David Norgrove warned the Government against the change after studying the impact of a similar move in Australia, which he said had resulted in "delays to the resolution of custody disputes, which was manifestly not in the best interests of the child".
And his concerns were echoed by the House of Commons Justice Committee, which said it had "significant concerns about whether the draft clause is a necessary or desirable legislative change". In a report, the committee accepted that the involvement of both parents in a child's life was "normally beneficial and in the interests of the child". But the cross-party committee warned: "As the incidence of abuse cases in the courts and across population studies show, it is not beneficial in every case, and therefore we do not consider that it can be 'presumed'."
Courts are currently required to work on the presumption that the best interests of the child are paramount in custody cases, said the report. And it warned: "There is a danger that the introduction of a second presumption will take the attention of the court, but equally importantly the attention of parents ... away from determining what is in the child's best interests."
While the Bill does not state that parents have the right to an equal share of time with the child, there was a danger that many parents will misunderstand the clause as meaning that they do, the committee warned.
Committee chairman Sir Alan Beith said: "Relationship breakdown and the care proceedings process are highly emotive areas. Throughout our inquiry we have kept at the front of our minds that the primary purpose of all interventions in family relationships must be to protect the safety and well-being of children.
"The minister for children and families at the Department for Education, Edward Timpson MP, made clear in his answers to our questions that the Government did not intend or expect that the proposed new wording would change the content of court orders, but that it could encourage parents to reach agreement on shared parenting and would help to reduce the 'sense that there is an in-built bias towards one parent or another' in the system. We concluded that the absence of enforcement of court orders is a bigger factor in the perception problem that the content of those orders."
A Law Society spokesman said: "There is no doubt that it is in a child's best interest to have a meaningful relationship with both parents where it is safe to do so. The courts do not in fact favour one parent over another, they are concerned with what is in the best interests of the child. The Justice Committee recognises this, and that Government proposals have more to do with perception than reality. Introducing a legislative presumption of shared parenting could lead to unrealistic expectations from parents about shared time. Although the Government insists that this is not what the legislation says, as the committee comments, the problem is what parents think the law says, and the practical effect on real families."
A Government spokesman said: "We will consider the Justice Committee's report very carefully. We are committed to ensuring that our reforms will make sure that the child's welfare remains the courts' main concern. We will be publishing a full response early next year."