Three Czech fathers seeking joint-custody of their children are taking their cases to Strasbourg. They form the fifth-wave of parents who, unhappy with the ruling of a Czech court, have turned to the European Court of Human Rights. Last year alone, the Czech government was ordered by Strasbourg to pay out more than 50 million CZK (2.5 million USD) in damages to fathers who, it deemed, had been subject to discrimination at the hands of a Czech judge. Is there anything that can be done to prevent further waves of dissatisfied fathers going all the way to Strasbourg?
"My story is very, very simple, and rather common in the Czech Republic. My wife found a lover, and told me she was moving out. She said she was going to take the children with her. I said to her, 'okay, if that's how you feel, go, but please, let's raise the children together, let's ask for joint-custody'. She said 'you know, we're not in Germany anymore' - we are both German you see - 'so here you don't stand a chance'. At first I didn't believe it, but then the court showed me that she was absolutely right."
78% of all child-custody cases here in the Czech Republic are presided over by a female judge. Some sociologists think that this could be responsible for the high-number of cases that are decided in the mother's favour. But Peter Alexander Nymburg doesn't agree. He had a male judge presiding over his case, and thinks that it is more a question of attitude than of gender:
"The judge gave her the children to raise, right on the very first day. It has been one and a half years now, the children's behaviour has changed. And I cannot be with them, only a few weekends a month. A few days ago I visited the judge and told him that I couldn't go on like this. And he told me 'I don't understand you, Mr. Nymburg, what do you want? You see the children, don't you?' He really didn't understand that I want to raise my children."
Jiri Fiala is from the fathers' rights group K213, which has been coordinating this new wave of complaints to Strasbourg. I asked him which particular human right was, in his view, being violated by Czech courts:
"Well it is especially the right to family life which is being violated. This is what the majority of people are claiming, and which is certainly the case because if a mother doesn't want to hand her child over to the father after a divorce, then she is certainly not pressurised to do so. The courts do nothing, and they don't help the father gain access to his child, even though they are obliged to do this. They are obliged to by law, as the law doesn't say that fathers come second-in-line to mothers."
In its communication with Strasbourg, the Czech government has admitted that there is a problem, and that joint custody is an almost unheard-of concept in Czech courts.
At the moment, it is the Czech state which pays these fathers damages. But, in theory, the state can then ask the judge who made the illegal decision for a contribution, which can be worth up to four months' of his or her salary.
Fathers' rights groups see fining judges as a possible solution to the problem, and are pushing for the state to start exercising this right, which, in their view, is currently under-used.
But changes are yet to happen, and in the meantime, fathers like Peter Alexander Nymburg are left with what they feel is no other option than to turn to Strasbourg.
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