One of my first posts on Marilyn Stowe’s Family Law & Divorce Blog related to child contact centres. As I explained there, contact centres operate around the country to provide a neutral, safe environment for children to maintain a relationship with a non resident parent after separation. They are, in my view, an essential part of our family justice ‘system’ (in the larger sense), often providing the only sensible option for progressing contact disputes.
The importance of contact centres was illustrated by a recent Court of Appeal case, A-M (Children), which involved a mother’s appeal against a contact order.
The background to the case was that the parents were married in 2000 and separated in 2004. There are two children of the marriage, now aged 13 and 11. Initially after the separation the children lived with the mother, but in 2010 the court transferred residence to the father because it was considered that the children had been subjected to the stresses of the mother’s anxieties and hostilities and that the way in which the mother had dealt with the father was harmful to their emotional welfare.
Since 2010 the children have been living with the father. At first the mother had fortnightly contact, but this was reduced to three weekly in August 2011 and then in December 2011 to four weekly. The contact has always taken place on a supervised basis, mostly in a contact centre.
In April 2012 the mother applied for residence to be transferred to her, seeking increased contact in the alternative. The application was heard and judgment was eventually given in April this year. The judge dismissed the mother’s application for residence. As to her contact with the children the judge, rather than increase it, decreased it to six times a year, in accordance with a recommendation by the National Youth Advocacy Service (‘NYAS’), who were acting for the children.
In his conclusion the judge explained:
“Whilst I accept that there has been some improvement in the monthly contact that has been taking place, in particular the mother herself has been far less emotional than had previously been the case, the evidence is that the mother does not try to reassure the children, nor does she take a real interest in their lives with the father and she does not try to promote their relationship with the father.”
The mother sought to appeal against the judge’s decision. She was refused permission to appeal against the dismissal of her residence application, but granted permission in respect of the contact order.
Giving the leading judgment in the Court of Appeal Lady Justice Black allowed the appeal. The reason for doing so was simply that the judge had failed to evaluate what had gone on in the contact sessions, as recorded in the contact centre’s notes, to see whether that material provided a secure foundation for criticising the mother’s approach during contact or not.
Accordingly, the mother’s appeal was allowed. The judge’s order was set aside and a re-hearing was ordered, before a different judge. Further, a new NYAS caseworker is to be appointed, so that there can be a completely fresh look at the case.
Contact centres do not just provide a safe environment where contact can take place. They also prepare a neutral (and therefore unbiased) report of what happened at each contact visit – whether it went well, whether there were any problems, etc. Contact at a centre is usually a stepping-stone to less restricted contact – as this case shows, these reports can be very important when it comes to the court deciding how future contact should proceed.
Photo by Jessica Nichols via Flickr