Picture, if you will, a very common family law scenario. A mother and a father have separated. Their young child lives with the mother. The father wants to have contact with the child but the mother objects. She puts forward various reasons for her objection, such as that the father does not know how to look after the child, that the child doesn’t like him and that the child becomes distressed when he/she is separated from the mother.
The parties go to mediation, but the mother digs her heels in and no agreement is reached. The father therefore makes an application to the court for contact (technically, a child arrangements order).
The court must, of course, consider the ‘Welfare Checklist’. However, the essential question it has to determine is: will this child come to any harm if contact takes place?
Clearly, the best way to find an answer to the question would be for the father to have contact with the child, but in a controlled environment where the contact can be monitored and safely be brought to an end if problems should arise. Where is there an environment where such contact can take place?
The answer, and often the only answer, is of course in a child contact centre. The centre can monitor the contact and keep a record of how it goes, which can be reported back to the court.
Child contact centres are an essential part of the family justice system. It was therefore with considerable dismay that I read that the National Association of Child Contact Centres (‘NACCC’) have reported that forty centres have closed in the last eighteen months across England and Wales, as a result of the legal aid cuts last year. Worse, the NACCC believe that there will be more closures to follow, with the pace of the closures accelerating.
The result, warns the NACCC, is that some areas of the country have no centres at all, with no doubt more areas to follow.
The exact reason for the closures is that, with fewer people making contact applications due to the legal aid cuts, the number of children using a centre has reduced, from 15,000 in 2013 to 9,000 last year. The irony is that one of the reasons for fewer people using the centres is that fewer people are going to solicitors, who used to make many of the referrals to contact centres. It is exactly the same situation as occurred with mediation – the number of mediations dropped after the legal aid cuts, because solicitors weren’t referring people to mediation (one of the many great errors that the government made when cutting legal aid was assuming that lawyers were always a force for conflict in family matters, when very often the opposite is the reality).
The NACCC is this week trying to redress the balance with a National Awareness Campaign to inform separating parents of the existence of contact centres. One of the messages the NACCC wants parents and other services to know is that parents can self-refer to a contact centre – they do not have to be going through court or to have a solicitor.
Hopefully, the campaign will arrest the decline in the number of contact centres, because without them, quite simply, many children are going to be denied a relationship with one of their parents.
Photo by kkalyan via Flickr