Trapped in Pathfinder

One father’s journey through the UK’s new family legal system

24th April 2023

The new Pathfinder alternative to family court indulges institutional sexism, writes a father.

The government is currently piloting ‘Pathfinder’ family courts. This ‘pioneering approach’ promises a less conflictual means of resolving family disputes by involving more professionals before the disputing parties get to court. But, in my experience, preliminary expert intervention enables mediators, social workers, schools, and mothers to collude in a way that is detrimental to fathers.

To be clear, the problem is not the family court, which has not changed. The problem is the new prerequisite for biased institutions to compile evidence. “Pathfinder” is a new term, but “bash-father” is the same old bias. Because of this bias, the requirement for front-loading evidence simply makes the entire legal process more time-consuming, expensive, and conflictual.

How did this situation come about, especially under a Conservative government that might be thought to favour traditional family structures? As usual, the government consulted with academics, women’s groups, and agencies. It did not consult with groups that focus on fathers. This might explain why the government’s press release announcing the launch of the Pathfinder programme focuses on domestic abuse which, terrible though it is, is only a minor part of family court cases. The press release makes no mention of fathers.

Those with an interest in the system deny anti-father bias, but this is a sleight of hand. The system is biased towards ‘primary carers’ who are almost always mothers. Mothers achieve this status because they spend more time at home. Most fathers do not realize the legal implications of this until they are already engaged in a dispute about access to their children.

Separating parents into ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ carers is inherently biased. The default position should be that both parents are entitled to equal access unless one party is shown to be a risk to the children. As it currently stands, mothers are actively encouraged to portray fathers as secondary and unsafe.

By reframing parents as carers, the system conveniently deletes parental rights. The formal focus on the needs of the child seems uncontroversial, but it sets in place a logical assumption that a child’s primary need is to be with their primary carer. The idea that fathers are secondary carers begins when the registrar reminds mothers that they do not need to register a father on a birth certificate.

The Pathfinder pilot hands more power to mediators, teachers, social workers, and agents of CAFCASS (Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service). These roles are often filled by women who have been trained to see men as a risk to children. Too often, they see ‘success’ as formalising distance between fathers and children, rather than prioritising the relationship.

I am one of Pathfinder’s victims. I started this process a year ago, unaware that by an accident of geography I would end up on a Pathfinder pilot. The mother of my children refuses to let me see them other than on visits controlled by her and taking place in her home. A year ago, I warned I would go to court to establish shared access. I was advised to give her every chance to negotiate but nothing changed and months went by before I felt legally protected to initiate mediation.

Months then went by in mediation. Family courts do not allow you to petition until an approved mediator signs a declaration stating that mediation has been tried but failed. The fee for this mediation is typically £150 for each 60 minutes and the first hour is not mediation at all – it is you alone, being told how great mediation is.

My mediator spent 30 minutes on this grift, before admitting that she had nothing else to say until she spoke to my former partner. Weeks later, I received her declaration that mediation would not work although my ex-partner claimed not to know how this decision had been reached. This whole process worsened our relationship.

After failed mediation, a solicitor filed my petition with the court. I am currently on my third solicitor. The first claimed not to have received my emails and let months go by without comment or advice on incoming documents. He charged me nearly £1000 just to handle the petition and court replies – and he was not the most expensive. I paid the second solicitor more than £1,500 for reading paperwork, responding to postponements and giving ambivalent advice. My current solicitor, the most expensive, is also the most responsive.

Why are family solicitors so disengaged? They know institutions can be biased and capricious, so it does not really matter that much what they do. Their advice is ambivalent so they can never be wrong. They have little interest in challenging the system and so most of their time with clients is spent lowering expectations. Most of their time with peers is spent accommodating each other. My first solicitor tried to persuade me to pay my former partner’s chosen solicitor as a mediator.

After the court admitted my petition, my case was put in the hands of CAFCASS (Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service), which then postponed proceedings for months, claiming staff shortages. When I was finally allocated an agent, I discovered that she had consulted with both my former partner and with my children’s school, weeks before contacting me. She then offered me a meeting in a very narrow time slot and told me that if I could not make it the court hearing would be postponed again. When we met, I soon realised that she had already made up her mind about my case. She noted little of anything I said. She asked invasive and provocative questions.

Two days later she submitted her report to the court. It amplified everything my former partner had said, while either casting doubt on whatever I had said, or failing to mention it entirely. Her conclusion was that the status quo should continue, that is, my former partner should continue to supervise my access to my children and all visits take place in her home.

I had to write a second statement. Most of my pages refuted the CAFCASS report. But I was advised to ignore criticism for fear of appearing to be conflictual. Meanwhile, my former partner was encouraged to escalate her claims of an absent, disinterested, harsh father.

The CAFCASS report revealed the agent had solicited a report from my children’s school without having informed me. I told the school that I felt this was unfair and asked to see a copy of the documents they submitted. The school refused. I filed a Freedom of Information request. The school warned it might take two months to comply. I replied that the law obliges a response in three weeks.

The school’s response arrived just two days before the hearing. It shows that the CAFCASS officer had misreported the school’s submission. For instance, the school stated that I am spoken of positively by my children. But the CAFCASS officer reported to the court that the school claimed I am not really involved in the life of my children or mentioned much by them. Confronted with these discrepancies on the day of the hearing, the CAFCASS officer agreed to recuse herself from further reports. But she was not admonished by the court. She remains a CAFCASS officer and registered social worker. She remains sitting alongside the barristers within the family court.

Shockingly, the officer then launched her retaliation. She announced that she had prepared a petition to the local authority for my children to be taken into care. She claimed she had kept this secret for several weeks, so as not to stoke tensions between the parents.

Once the document was released to my barrister, we realised that the CAFCASS officer, the school, and my former partner had all colluded in misrepresenting a comment I made at an earlier meeting between school and parents. At the close of the meeting, I thanked the teacher for her assessment of my child and then said that I looked forward to getting my hands on my son at the weekend in order to make my own assessment. I respectfully requested that the teacher should inform both parents before she next commented on our family to an outside authority.

Unknown to me, after I left this meeting, the teacher and my former partner remained behind to confer. They decided that my innocent comment about looking forward to ‘getting my hands on’ my child was a threat of violence. The teacher escalated a safeguarding concern to the head teacher, who consulted the CAFCASS officer over the telephone. The CAFCASS officer queried how my children’s mother could be expected to parent properly when she was so ‘upset’ and ‘shocked’.

Today I am waiting for a second court hearing. I have spent more than £4000 on a process that has left me with all trust in my former partner destroyed and, most importantly of all, still uncertain whether I will ever see my children again.

In my experience, the Pathfinder programme increases the time, expense and conflict of an already horrible legal process – particularly for dads.

Photo by Szilvia Basso on Unsplash.