The World from Berlin 'Children Need Both a Mother and a Father'

A ruling by Germany's highest court on Tuesday should make it easier for unmarried fathers to secure joint custody of their children, after it judged a mother's veto to be unconstitutional. The German press welcomes the judgement, arguing it means the law will finally reflect social changes.

Unmarried fathers are to be treated equally in future.

Unmarried fathers are to be treated equally in future.

Unmarried fathers in Germany are now much more likely to secure joint custody of their children -- even against the wishes of the mothers. The country's Constitutional Court ruled on Tuesday that mothers should not be allowed to veto an unmarried father's bid for custody, as this discriminated against his parental rights.

Up to now, if a separated couple had never married, fathers could only apply for any kind of custody with the express agreement of the mother. The court ruled that, while the mother can continue to be initially granted custody, the father should be allowed legal recourse to request custody. The judges said that until the necessary legislation is put in place, family courts should give joint custody when it is applied for, "as long as this is in the interest of the child."

The ruling came after a father challenged the fact that he had been denied custody of his son, who was born in 1998. It also followed a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights in 2009 that German laws breached anti-discrimination laws and contravened a European directive on the right to sustain and respect family life.

Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, a member of the liberal Free Democrats, greeted the ruling and said that her ministry was already working on draft legislation.

However, there is not universal approval for the ruling from within the government's ranks. Dorothee Bär of the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party to Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats, said that the "institution of marriage was being increasingly undermined." Speaking to the Munich-based newspaper TZ, she said that she was concerned that the only remaining advantage of marriage would be in terms of taxation.

On Wednesday the German press is largely enthusiastic about the ruling, arguing that it reflects the changing realities of family structures:

The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"The constitutional court's decision on custody rights has put an end to an older, insensitive period of family law. More than 60 years after the German constitution came into effect, it has finally fulfilled its duty to put illegitimate children on an equal footing with other children. The judgement is a good example of the court's power to make the law adapt to changed family structures. Almost every third child (in Germany) is now born out of wedlock. The country's highest court is now trying, with much juristic finesse, to give these children the right to a father as well as a mother."

The Financial Times Deutschland writes:

"The judges are calling for unmarried men to have the same chance of gaining custody as married men. Now politicians and the courts have to make sure that both groups can avail of this opportunity."

"First of all, a change in the law is required… Unmarried and married fathers should be automatically given custody rights to their children when they are born, rather than having to apply for it."

"And there has to be a change of culture on the family courts, so that the judgement is not just on paper but also works in practice."

"The reality is that the mother has long ceased to be the only important attachment figure in a child's life. However, in case law, her special position still endures. If parents cannot agree on joint custody, then the judge will in most cases choose the woman."

"Ideally there should be more cases where both ex-partners take care of the children. That usually benefits the child. And that, after all, is what really matters."

The left-leaning Die Tageszeitung writes:

"Why should married and unmarried fathers be treated differently? Fathers are all equally fathers, surely? But that is the crux of the matter. Not all fathers are the same."

"There are more and more fathers who take good and loving care of their children. The lawmakers are now seeing this reality. However, there are also fathers who look for custody only as a way of exercising power. They want to be regarded as a father legally, though they are long gone from the child's everyday life, or were never there to begin with. These are the fathers who do not pay enough, or any, child support. According to the statistics, they account for more than half."

"It would, therefore, be a good idea if the lawmakers were to create criteria that could be considered in negotiating custody rights and that actually describe caring for children: responsibility, a connection between the child and parent, empathy -- the basics that make parents into parents."

The conservative Die Welt writes:

"The judgement is a step in the right direction. Unmarried fathers will in future have a better chance of securing custody rights. However, to get this chance they have to still drag their ex-partner to court. This is not only an unnecessary burden on the courts, it is also a burden on the relationship between the parents, which provides the framework for any joint custody of a child."

"In cases where one parent justifiably wants sole custody, then there should be the possibility of legally securing that. But for the others it could be helpful after a painful separation not to be tempted to use the issue of custody in any power games."

"It would make sense to give both parents automatic custody rights when a child is born -- including if they are unmarried. At the same time, fathers must be prevented from suddenly ditching their responsibilities."

The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"It cannot be the case that the mother can block a father's custody of his child, and in doing so interfere with their relationship. The law cannot abet these kinds of power games that happen when relationships break down. This is about the welfare of the child. And family law is still infused with the spirit of the past, a different family reality. The new ruling is only reflecting the deep changes in society."

"Children need both a mother and a father. … Those who bring a child into the world together should share responsibility for it."

The mass circulation Bild writes:

"Fathers are not per se the worst parent and mothers are not automatically the best. Uncaring fathers and caring mothers -- these are clichés that since yesterday can be put where they belong: in the garbage can of prejudices."

"Of course the best thing is when a child lives with the father AND mother. As a proper family. But this ideal case is (unfortunately) not always reality."

"And if the parents split up, then there should be only one criteria for deciding who has custody: the wellbeing of the child."

The left-leaning Berliner Zeitung writes:

"One and a half million single parents live in Germany, a fifth of all families, and 90 percent of these households consist of mothers with their children."

"In the case of couples splitting up, fathers disappear amazingly quickly -- not just from the woman's life but from that of the children. Many not only don't like paying child support … they also don't turn up to parent-teacher meetings, they don't make the breakfast, they don't take care of the child when it's sick, or organize the shopping or the children's birthday parties, they don't make sure their kids get private lessons and only go every now and then with them to football training."

"Of course there are committed fathers who take care of the children and share responsibility. These men deserve custody."

"But for many, an automatic custody right would be undeserved and scandalous, because it would be damaging for the children."

-- Siobhán Dowling


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