September 21 passed without special notice, as usual, this year.
Perhaps, in future, that day might be remembered as Zdenek Hanzlik Day. Or, to make it easier on our clumsy tongues, we could call it Sid’s Day — that being the name by which the 60-year-old, originally from the Czech Republic, was always known in his adopted New Zealand.
On September 21 in 2017, Sid Hanzlik staged a one-man demonstration outside the family courts in Wellington. He held up home-made placards, one of which read: “My vote No! to family court lawyers racket” and the other: “In Iran you stone mothers, in New Zealand fathers.”
Then he sat on the pavement, poured a jerry-can of petrol over his head and set fire to himself. Next day, he died in hospital of his terrible injuries.
In its particulars, the story behind this ghastly self-immolation is special to Sid Hanzlik. In its overall narrative, however, it is common to family courts all over the Western world where millions of men endure the legal process of being marginalised from the lives of their own children. Many are driven to the edge of sanity, as Sid was.
He had been married to a Japanese woman. They had four children. When they separated, trouble ensued over custody and access to the children, and it went on for years. Sid was a devoted father who couldn’t bear to be sidelined in the lives of his own children. He fought against the family court orders that gave him negligible time with the kids and, in so doing, he gave himself a bad name with the courts and with social services.
They told him to play the game. He told them it wasn’t a game to him. He thought they were, in his words, “trying to assassinate him as a father”. They thought he was an obsessive nuisance and trouble-maker. Eventually, orders were handed down that forbade him to have any contact with his children. He would be taken back to court charged with breaking these orders for having waved to his children across a field, for having sent them a Christmas card, for having left flowers on their doorstep.
Around 2013, a complete estrangement set in. Sid didn’t see his children for years, for the rest of his life in fact. He couldn’t stand it. It drove him to the end of his tether. One of his friends said that, in Sid’s eyes, if he couldn’t be a father to his own children, there was no point in living and he might as well end it in the most dramatic way to draw attention to the injustices he had had suffered and others like him.
So that’s what he did. He staged the most theatrical and appalling event, killing himself in public, to try to capture the attention and the interest of the world…
… and the world took absolutely no notice.
The story of Sid’s suicide was given scant coverage in New Zealand media. Outside the country, his story wasn’t mentioned anywhere.
It’s revealing to compare this lack of interest with other occasions when a person has theatrically sacrificed him or herself in public to draw attention to injustice.
After the suffragette Emily Davison was killed when she ran in front of the King’s horse at the Derby in 1913, more than 5,000 women followed her coffin through the streets of London and 50,000 people lined the streets.
She has never been — and will never be — forgotten.
Similarly, when Jan Palach set fire to himself in Prague in 1969 to protest against the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia, he triggered worldwide coverage and started an underground movement that, arguably, eventually led to the Fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Soviet Union. His funeral brought central Prague to a halt.
Statues and monuments to his memory can be found to this day across the whole country. Jan Palach, like Emily Davison, will never be forgotten.
Sid Hanzlik, meanwhile, has been entirely forgotten. The protest he staged in Wellington was no different, in essence, from that of Emily Davison or Jan Palach: he gave his life, in the most dramatic way he could devise, to draw the world’s attention to an injustice that he — and many like him — was suffering; and the world was absolutely blind and deaf to his protest.
The position of men who have been driven to the end of their tether by family court orders that marginalise or eliminate them from their children’s lives is one that generates no traction or interest in the political culture of our age, despite the fact that their position constitutes, arguably, the most flagrant breach of human rights and the most egregious inequality in our own society.
In an interview with me in 2018, Sir Mark Potter reflected on his time as President of the Family Division for England and Wales and said,
“The mother held all the cards in the court proceedings. The rulings of the court rebounded badly on fathers. I would have to accept that the dice were all loaded against fathers.”
You have to wonder if Sir Mark ever considered the possibility that inequality and injustice on that scale might drive some men to desperate measures.
Suicides among men after divorce and separation appear to be at levels between six and nine times the rate for women who have separated or divorced.
But we can’t be sure of those figures because, so far as I can find out, no research has ever been conducted on that questions anywhere in the world. The reason for that omission is, as we learn from Sid Hanzlik’s story, that fathers simply don’t count in this world.
In the Scottish Family Party, however, fathers do matter. We do believe that fathers are important in children’s lives and we believe that children have the right to the love, care and support of both parents. If we were in Holyrood, we would argue that equal parenting should be the default position of the family courts and that orders placing children in the care of one parent rather than another should be made only when the most serious and provable reasons exist for such an order in the children’s interests.
In other words, Sid’s Day won’t be forgotten here. We promise him that.