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Children up to age 6 will no longer be automatically handed into the custody of their mothers in divorce cases, Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman announced on Thursday.

Neeman said he has adopted the recommendations of a public panel chaired by Prof. Dan Shnit, including doing away with the presumption that the living with the mother is always in the child's best interest. The Justice Ministry will now draft legislation based on the committee's recommendations, but it is expected to take several years before any legislative changes are put in place due to the strong opposition the panel's suggestions have engendered.

The Shnit committee was convened in 2005 and submitted its final recommendations last month. In addition to being asked to reexamine the presumption in favor of the mother when it comes to custody of young children, the panel was also asked to propose refinements to the methods courts use in determining what is in the child's best interest.

Findings of a study were presented to the committee showing that mothers were given custody of their children in 90 percent of divorce cases in Israel, that joint custody was a rarity in the country, and that the custody issue was rarely even a matter of legal dispute.

The committee based its custody proposal on the view that determining what is in the best interest of the child should be examined on a individual basis. The panel proposed that the law includes guidelines for the courts in determining what is in the child's interest in cases in which the parents cannot agree on a custody arrangement.

In response to the argument that eliminating the presumption that young children should be in their mothers' custody would spawn court litigation and abuse of the legal system, the committee said this could be avoided if the courts are given guidelines to help them come to a decision.

The panel proposed that judges consider the child's changing developmental needs, the child's wishes (to the extent at this was possible based on the child's age and maturity ), the extent to which the parents are willing to cooperate in ensuring the child's interests, the couple's parenting skills and the degree to which each parent took responsibility for child rearing before the divorce.

The panel recommended mediation and counseling as means through which parents can be encouraged to communicate. It also suggested that judges be given enforcement powers that would include ordering a parent who fails to carry out parental duties to pay compensation to his or her former spouse.