Settling down for his evening meal one unremarkable autumn day, Rob Irwin was hit with a bombshell. His wife announced she wanted a divorce. Their relationship had been under the usual strains that challenge any young couple with children, but this pronouncement still came out of the blue.

Heartbroken, yet resilient, Irwin suggested relationship counselling in an attempt to keep his family together for the benefit of their kids, who are both primary school age. It proved futile due to his then-wife’s unwillingness to engage and they were faced with no other option than to set off down the painful path to separation.

The subsequent months gave Irwin an insight into how seemingly ‘harsh’ divorce and custody proceedings can be for non-resident’parents in Britain. His ex-wife’s legal team has expertly employed a flawed system and prevented him from having access to his children as he would have liked, and he had even been wrongly arrested and thrown out of his own home.

“I offered to buy her out of the family home, due to me having the available funds and her only working part-time,” he says. “I also suggested shared care, to ensure stability for the children."

“I even offered to pay for her to rent locally until we were able to find a suitable home. I offered to pay a very generous maintenance for the kids and to fund all their extra-curricular activities and provide money for clothes and other sundries. All I asked in return, so she could afford to buy somewhere in the same area we lived, was for her to seek a few more hours’ work.”

Despite his generosity in the face of a divorce he had not wanted, his then-wife took great offence, resulting in her applying for a non-molestation order (a part of the UK’s restraining order system) to be made against Irwin, meaning he had to leave the family home. He has spent the last six months ‘sofa surfing’ between his friends’ houses and his parent’s spare room, 30 miles away from his children.

“Despite there being no hard evidence against me, I was served with this order,” he says. “The courts were not interested in my side of the story and believed everything my ex-wife said, despite her exaggerations and untruths.

“My ex-wife called the police on more than one occasion with fabricated stories, to the point the officers attending one such situation asked her to leave the house and put the children in my temporary care. Despite me presenting freedom of information results to back this up, the judge still granted the order.

“Furthermore, she had me arrested at my parents’ home, which resulted in me being driven 35 miles to a police station, questioned for several hours and subsequently released without charge and with a big apology from the police. As a result, I lost half a day’s pay and was unable to see my children that evening.”

A decision on custody is imminent after more than 12 months of legal wrangles at a cost of around £70,000 between them. Irwin hopes the courts will buck what appears to be a trend in these proceedings and grant joint care. Census statistics from 2011 show that 82 per cent of mothers receive custody of their children in cases like this.

“I have never once pushed for full custody as I believe that the children should have equal access to their parents,” he says. “Despite my misgivings over my ex-wife’s behaviour, I would never seek to deny her access. She on the other hand has done all kinds of things to prevent me seeing my kids, including attempting to get me removed as volunteer coach at their local sports club. It has been heartbreaking. The children cling to me and beg me not to go when I see them.”

Sadly, Irwin’s case is by no means unique, as agreed by Andrew Teague, who formed the National Association of Alienated Parents (NAAP) after his own experiences.

In a report called ‘Parental Alienation in the UK launched at the House of Commons last month (March 2018), he states: “The abuse of the restraining order system is quite common when false allegations of some type are levied. Of those making false allegations, usually one of the parents will abuse the restraining order process in order to gain a tactical advantage in divorce proceedings for a variety of reasons, including child custody arrangements.

“Restraining Orders threaten the accused with arrest, ascribing them to criminal motive and deviancy, deterring access to their home, belongings and children. This is initiated based on a quick interview between an applicant and judge. Verdicts result from mere implications. In essence, accusation is synonymous with fault.”

Fareham MP Suella Fernandes raised the issue in a House of Commons debate in November 2017, saying: “I have been inundated by stories from families…who have endured our family justice system in the event of a divorce.

“Months and sometimes years have been spent caught up in a labyrinthine court system and bureaucracy where typically, but not always, the non-resident father has had to fight to see his children at great emotional and financial expense.

“The sad truth is that many of those being failed by the system are good parents. They want to spend time with their children and be proper dads or mums. They accept that divorce will mean a change in living circumstances and they may not be the main caregiver, but they are pitted against their former partner who is the resident parent.

“They can face years of heartache, protracted court proceedings, exorbitant legal fees and diminishing relationships with their children.”

Irwin is hopeful other fathers won’t suffer the same way he has. “All I have wanted throughout this process is the best for my children, which I believe is shared custody. The system has made this very difficult. I have made a vow to dedicate my free time to campaign for changes to the system and to raise awareness of the issues, so no child needs to go through this and so no father is unfairly demonised and punished despite no wrong doing, as I have been.”

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