The family courts have adequate powers to enforce child contact orders, a new study suggests.
In what is first full analysis of enforcement since 2006, researchers at the Universities of Exeter and Oxford analysed 215 enforcement applications from different regions, a nationally representative sample.
In their report, entitled Enforcing contact orders: problem-solving or punishment?, the authors note:
“For the last decade or more, policy-makers and father’s groups had expressed concern that contact orders are being flouted and that the courts are not acting robustly in response.”
Despite these frequently expressed concerns, however, the author insist that:
“Adequate punitive sanctions are in place, are mostly used when needed and can secure compliance.”
“Courts typically handled cases fairly speedily, with most cases getting into court quickly.”
Only “a minority” of cases experienced problems when parties involved refuse co-operate, the report declares, with both the resident and non-residents sometimes failing to co-operate with the court.
The courts are “sufficiently robust” in most cases, the researchers claim, and only a few cases involve implacably hostile parents. In fact, they say:
“There were as many examples of courts being too robust as being not robust enough.”
The Children and Adoption Act 2006 introduced a new sanction for parents who disobey contact orders – unpaid community service – thought to be less likely to harm the children involved than existing penalties such as imprisonment. The authors of the new report believe “assessment for unpaid work and suspended enforcement orders can work to secure compliance without having a negative impact on the child.”
However, “..if an enforcement order is deemed appropriate after thorough assessment, then sanctions should be pursued robustly rather than allowing cases to drift or result in further non-compliance.”
Parents with mental health issues and personality disorders lie behind some of the most difficult contact order enforcement cases, the report also claims.
“In these circumstances a therapeutic approach may well be more productive than a purely punitive approach but at present there is a dearth of appropriate services, particularly outside London.”
The research was funded by social policy charity the Nuffield Foundation.