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Current Family Law Developments in Holland Report March l999

By Rob van Altena

l. Government prepares new process to maintain father-child contact after divorce

In October l998 a first exchange of views was held in parliament on new processes to maintain or ensure father-child contact after parental separation. The UnderSecretary of Justice, Mr J. Cohen, then ordered an investigation on how this contact is maintained or ensured in the countries around Holland and with what result. This investigation is carried out by a commission, composed of representatives of those groups that are professionally involved in the problem: academics, the judiciary, lawyers, child protection officers and social workers.

The commission (The Westerings Commission) has just brought out a draft report which is now under discussion with the Family Law Platform. The final report is due to be presented to parliament in June. All this is but a run-up to an important Congress on Children and the Right to Contact organized by order of the Department of Justice, to be held in Breda on June 24 with continuations on 16 September and 16 December.

Participants will be members of the above mentioned professions (mostly personally invited) and parents from the fathers/parents groups. Main speaker on the first day is Richard A. Gardner, Professor at Columbia University, New York. The congress is organized by the Dutch Platform of familylaw Organizations.

This broadly based congress shows serious recognition by the government that the present system of maintaining child-parent contact is not working and that this is a great social problem. New proposals in the form of systematic mediation between parents are to be expected. But will mediation alone be enough to make those parents (mostly mothers) comply who stubbornly refuse compliance? Most fathers and father organizations think that mediation, good in itself, is doomed to failure without the support of a law that would make contact sabotage a criminal offence.

Mr Otto Vos, a Dutch MP who is very active on fathers' issues, asked for such a Bill to be introduced, but the UnderSecretary of Justice thinks that this would be going too far at the present time. And even if the government could be won over and persuaded to introduce it into law, the problem of its implementation remains.

In France, where obstruction of contact is punishable by law, the law still appears, as often as not, to be honoured in the breach by the judiciary. Another point of criticism is that investigation of father-child relationships will be limited to the four countries around Holland - Belgium, France, Germany and the United Kingdom, where the situation scarcely varies from that in Holland itself. Every nitwit knows that Western Europe is among the worst parts of the world for maintaining father-child contact, and that refreshing ideas on this subject would rather be picked up elsewhere: in the Western states of the U.S., in some non-Western countries, maybe in Norway.

2. Former lawyer and judge and present MP Boris Dittrich is the driving force behind the so called Anti-Stalking Bill (5 May l998), intended as the Dutch equivalent of the British Protection from Harassment Act.

The AntiStalking Bill is a measure sought in order to make stalking punishable as a serious crime of violence. Although it covers stalking in general, it has been well prepared and promoted by the feminist lobby in order to be used specifically as a tool against fathers who continue to press for contact with their children against the obstruction of the mother.
As a maintained father-child contact is perfectly legal under Dutch law (but in practice suspended when obstructed by the mother), the anti-stalking bill (if it became law) would make a father punishable for pressing for his legal right. Those convinced that a court would never convict somebody for that, are not aware of how far courts can go to meet wishes of mot hers, even of mothers who break the law. As will appear from the next paragraph.
In January l998 the Anti-Stalking Bill lobby seemed to score a decisive victory when Liesbeth L. shot down her former husband (in the back, when he walked away from her) and declared that she had acted in self-defence and despair: the man had stalked her for years and in the end almost strangled her. By some media Liesbeth L. was now hailed as a prototype of the victim of stalking, her shot was called "an act of valour". But it soon came out the gunwoman had only concocted a false victim story for the sake of her defense and the prosecutor had to charge her with attempted murder. The court considered this proven but also wanted to be helpful: the gunwoman got away with eight months in prison. In the meantime the former hus band, who hardly survived the attempt on his life, was banned from contact with the two children (8 and 5) until authorities would take a decision on this contact. The decision-taking process took as much time as the whole period of the mothers imprisonment. Later the father was allowed 1 1/2 hour visit per month under supervision. Father-child contact punished after the crime of a mother.
However: for the lobby that intended to use the Anti-Stalking Bill against fathers this case proved to be bad publicity. Out of very different corners of society voices became loud to keep the cases of fathers who press for contact with their children within family law and out of criminal law. The Anti- Stalking Bill, still not brought before parliament, seems to have lost much of its momentum and of its threat against fathers.

Rob van Altena

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