Saturday, 23 October 2004

Family law conference

Fathers 4 Justice protestors have overpowered police and stormed a conference on family law, setting off smoke bombs and flares and forcing the evacuation of the building.

The fathers' rights group was hoping to get the chance to remonstrate with the children and families minister, Lord Filkin, outside the conference venue, which is next to the Regent's canal in north London.

The group's spokesman, Matt O'Connor, told that the minister could have found himself "in at the deep end".

Acting on a tip-off, the police stationed three divers and a dinghy in the canal as a precaution, and more than 30 policemen were brought in to guard the conference centre.

But the group's plan to confront Lord Filkin was thwarted by the fact that he had been reshuffled out of his family law role in September. His replacement, Baroness Ashton, addressed the conference before the protestors arrived.

The protest began at 11.30 when two men, one an able-bodied man in a wheelchair, had attempted to gain access to the conference run by the charity Children Law UK, after registering as members of a bogus organisation.

Their names were passed on to the Metropolitan police who identified them as members of the group Fathers 4 Justice, and they were turned away at the door.

The plan had been for the man in the wheelchair to "stage a miraculous recovery" in the conference hall and disrupt the meeting, said Mr O'Connor.

Fifteen policemen and police divers had been drafted in after the organisers got wind of the operation: but at lunchtime 15 protestors overpowered police on the door and set off flares in the foyer.

Fire alarms were set off, forcing the building, which is home to the National Council of Voluntary Organisations, to be evacuated.

Around 20 extra police were brought in and prevented the men from gaining access to the conference hall. Eight men were arrested.

The conference has now restarted and is due to be addressed by Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, the head of the family division at the high court.

Mr O'Connor said: "We have had a protest outside the family law conference. Unfortunately our original plan was rumbled but we got 15 people inside and flares were set off after two policemen were overpowered.

"There are policemen in a dinghy on the canal. The conference has restarted but we want to make as much noise as possible."

He said the stunt was prompted by an interview with Lord Filkin published in the Guardian yesterday, in which the minister described as "wet" those fathers who did not persist in getting contact with their children after the first knockback.

"Well, we are beside a canal," said Mr O'Connor. "He could have been in at the deep end."

Glyn Farrow, the spokesman for the conference organisers, said: "Children Law UK appreciates the experience of fathers who have been unable to maintain contact with their children.