Guiding principle in Belgium is that of equal custody of the child

Speaking at a recent international conference on Protecting Family Ties after Separation, Belgian Justice Minister Vincent Van Quickenborne emphasised how shared care lies at the heart of Belgian family law and courts.

The Minister started by saying that “When parents separate, the guiding principle in Belgium is that of equal custody of the child. Both parents enjoy the same rights after separation. Only if the court considers that equal custody is not the most appropriate formula can it decide to mandate non-equal accommodation. The judge will take into account the concrete circumstances of the case and the interests of the children and the parents.”

Belgian law was changed in 2006 to include a rebuttable presumption of equal shared care if one parents requests this to be considered. Far more court decisions are made for equal custody than in Scotland, and there seems to be broad agreement amongst the Belgian judiciary that this principle has worked for children in separated families.

The Minister went on to mention how other changes are being considered, stating that: “Children can therefore become hostages in the tumultuous proceedings and custody over them weaponized in the conflict between the parents. Parents can influence their children against the other parent and ultimately reject them.”

In this connection, he stated that it has become clear to him that: “a clear distinction must be made between the phenomenon of “parental alienation” and “parental alienation syndrome”. The notion of “parental alienation syndrome”, i.e. a psychological syndrome in a child, is rightly a controversial notion, on which there is little research to date.  

In contrast, parental alienation or even rejection is a very real problem and a multi-faceted issue. It is certainly possible that the child is being manipulated by one of the parents and exploited in a divorce. It also happens that one of the parents uses the child in the form of blackmail. In both situations, it is detrimental to the child and his or her family.”

His office is considering a project that has been undertaken in the Dinant courts, aiming to avoid a break in the parental relationship or to allow contact to be restarted in the interests of children and to provide information sessions for parents starting legal proceedings, while trying to discourage the build-up of accusations.

Training will be provided to family judges on the dangers of parental alienation and the judges will be supported by an interdisciplinary team of experts.  Family lawyers will also be encouraged to reach agreements rather than simply waging war on behalf of their client.

Shared Parenting Scotland has highlighted this Belgian initiative to the Scottish Government in the hope that these ideas can help inform the current discussion on changes to family courts, and we hope to invite Belgian and other foreign speakers to present their ideas in Scotland over coming months.

The Minister’s full speech is here: Speech minister Van Quickenborne_4th Intl Conference Protecting Family Ties after Separation