Lower house approves recommendation to make joint custody the norm
BERN, SWITZERLAND – The lower house of the Swiss parliament Tuesday accepted a committee’s recommendation to make joint custody of children the norm, whether parents are divorced or unmarried and living apart. A final question will be dealt with Wednesday, about some of the financial details, then the bill moves on to the upper house, where it is expected to be approved.
The biggest hurdle faced by the change to the law came in the form of a Socialist proposal to allow exceptions, when parents are unable to reach an agreement, but it was soundly defeated, with even the Greens, normally allies, saying the proposal simply confused the issue.
Swiss Federal Councilor Simonetta Sommaruga, who heads the Justice and Police Department, told the house that the purpose of the legal change is to remind parents of their joint responsibility, noting that the civil code needs to keep up with changes in society. Fully 50 percent of couples today divorce and one in five children are born outside a marriage.
What the legal change could mean
If the change to the civil code embraced the version of the law passed today by the lower house it would have the following impact:
- parents will share custody equally; the norm today is for one parent to be given custody and in the case of unmarried couples this is generally the mother, or for a couple to go before a judge to request joint custody, a costly and often difficult process
- the possibility of one parent having custody will remain, but the other parent must be shown to be unfit, and custody can be revoked for good cause, for example due to illness, violence or absence
- parents who are divorced or living apart will be required to decide jointly on matters concerning their children; this responsibility falls mainly on mothers today, but in the case of unmarried couples the law will continue to insist that they file a childcare agreement that is legally binding, but without the need for a judge’s approval
- to ensure that there are no problems in the case of an emergency, such as hospitalization, but also matters of daily life, such as clothing, the parent with whom the child lives will generally make decisions
- if one parent decides to move to another area where he or she will not be able to continue sharing custody the other parent must agree to the move; if the second parent doesn’t agree a judge or child protection services will decide.
Two groups in particular have pushed for the legislative changes, Association Suisse pour la Co-parentalité, which regroups 13 organizations, and the Fondation pour la Protection de l’Enfant, which has sought to protect single mothers.