THE chief executive of a York charity that works with separated parents and their children has said she sympathises with many of the complaints of controversial protest group Fathers 4 Justice.

Karen Richardson, of the One Parent Family Support and Information Network, agreed with the group that the family courts are "adversarial and uncertain".

But she said she could not condone headline-grabbing and sensational stunts staged by members who believe publicity will help them achieve changes in legislation.

Last Sunday, 14 people were arrested at York Minster after Fathers 4 Justice members dressed in clerical costume, stormed the General Synod's Eucharist and held a roof top sit-in after climbing scaffolding.

Fathers 4 Justice were also responsible for a string of high-profile protests across the country including an incident at Parliament when purple flour was thrown at Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Earlier this year in York, members dressed in decontamination suits hurled buckets of water at the Fishergate branch of the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service.

Mrs Richardson said there has been a "sea change" in society since separation legislation was drawn up, and fathers now want a bigger role in their child's life.

She said the York charity, which employs 12 people in Priory Street, has been supporting separated parents since 1973 and now works with groups as far apart as Cardiff and Newcastle.

"We decided to do something completely different and work for children's rights and to put the needs of children in the middle of what we do.

"We help parents build a partnership around their children which works away from parent rights and focuses on the needs of the child," she added.

Fathers 4 Justice member Martin Cottrell, 43, of Clifton, said he has run up legal debts of £30,000 over his four-year-old son in the aftermath of his marriage breakdown.

He said: "It's unimaginable the injustice and the discrimination in family law after separation." He now hopes to set up a branch of the support group in York.

Mrs Richardson said: "It's a way of cutting through the politics and saying we can make a difference now. We are not a rights-based group because it's a waste of time and public money. I would rather get on and do the work and make a difference now."

Updated: 08:12 Friday, July 16, 2004