LONDON Intelligent parents often use their children as "ammunition" and a "battlefield" to carry on their disputes in a legal war after separation, England's most senior family court judge says.
Nicholas Wall, president of the Family Division, said the arguments were rarely about the children themselves and accused divorcing parents of acting unreasonably, and damaging their offspring in the process.
He called for the family justice system to be made less adversarial, but said this would be difficult because of parents' behaviour.
"People think that post-separation parenting is easy -- in fact, it is exceedingly difficult, and as a rule of thumb my experience is that the more intelligent the parent, the more intractable the dispute," Wall said in a speech.
"Why do we have these endless disputes? The judicial answer is, I think, quite clear. It is because separating parents who are unable to resolve issues between themselves rarely act reasonably."
There were 121,779 divorces in Britain in 2008, the lowest number for more than 30 years. Almost half of the couples had children aged under 16, involving more than 106,000 youngsters.
Wall said separating parents did not realise the damage to children that their angry battles caused.
"Disputes over contact between absent parents and their former partners (married or otherwise) are rarely about the children concerned," he said.
"Far more often, the parties are fighting over again the battles of the relationship, and the children are both the battlefield and the ammunition.
"There is nothing worse, for most children, than for their parents to denigrate each other. If a child's mother makes it clear to the child that his or her father is worthless -- and vice versa -- the child's sense of self-worth can be irredeemably damaged."
A review of family law is under way and Wall said it might recommend a presumption of shared residence for the children, allowing them to live with each parent for half the time.
He also said mediation could be made compulsory before a custody dispute came to court.
"Generally speaking, children do better in every way if they have two parents in their lives, and the children of separated families are no exception," said Craig Pickering, chief executive of the Families Need Fathers charity.
(Reporting by Michael Holden)