The new Justice secretary Dominic Raab stated in the Commons recently that he wants to do something ‘drastic’ to stop up to half of family law cases reaching court. He wants to prioritise those with safeguarding and domestic abuse. Unfortunately, in a nine-months period last year 25% of all supported referrals had Cafcass or court involvement. What proportion could have come direct to centres if the parents had known about contact centres to start with or had been given the support to navigate their way towards one?

Supported referrals tend to be cases where safeguarding and domestic abuse are not significant issues but where communication between parents has become impossible or very difficult. NACCC has been campaigning for some time to raise awareness that child contact centres, alongside mediation and parenting plans can be an out of court solution for families if they only knew about them. Unfortunately, our voice is one of many and there are only so many people we can reach. it will take an information awareness campaign with substantially more clout to help spread the word.

We need Government, on both a national and local level to understand and promote the work of NACCC and the centres it accredits. Family solicitors, the courts themselves, children and family centres, children’s social care, schools, doctors, health visitors, family support workers… (the list goes on) need to be made more aware of their local child contact centres and the importance of accreditation to keep children safe.

Cafcass and Court referrals received by child contact centres so far this year (1 April – 31 December 21)

Most referrals to contact centres are self-referrals without court involvement. However, in the nine months between April to December 2021 25% of supported referrals and 29% of supervised referrals had court or Cafcass involvement.

Supported referrals: Self-referrals = 1027 (44% of all supported referrals). Referrals from Cafcass or with court involvement = 117 (Cafcass) + 315 (Court involvement) = 573 referrals (25% of all supported referrals).
Supervised referrals: Self-referrals = 1917 (28% of all supervised referrals). Referrals from Cafcass or with court involvement = 1147 (Cafcass) + 797 (Court involvement) = 1,944 referrals (29% of all supervised referrals).

We asked some of our accredited members to comment on their experience working with families coming through court and if in their view some of these could have come direct to them if the parents had known about contact centres to start with:

Drastic action is long overdue and I hope we can have long term and solid commitment from government. We do receive a high proportion of referrals where bitter divorce proceedings are happening and where domestic abuse and safeguarding issues are evident. Many of these have completed or are going through the court system as they ought. Others are referring to us after being directed to us or have searched independently. We discuss with these families whether supported or supervised contact is the most appropriate and why. Some we do then redirect for supervised contact.

Brian, co-ordinator at Westwood House Child Contact Centre

Brian went on to say: “The answer to your question is yes; I firmly believe that coming direct to centres would be greatly beneficial to families. We have a good proportion of enquiries/referrals that could, or indeed should, have not gone anywhere near the courts. Many parents just see court as a means of getting their own way and do not realise all the implications of taking this route.  Where parents talk of going down the legal route to court, we discuss with them whether this is what they really want and is it actually in anyone’s best interests? Many parents will then understand that courts are not required and are not the answer to their problems if they are willing to work with a Contact Centre in the best interests of their children and shifting the focus away from parental disputes. Experience tells me that many of our referrals over the last decade could have been made successfully and sooner had they been made direct to us earlier: Hence we could have worked together in the best interests of their children in a much shorter timescale and often achieved a more positive and less stressful outcome for the family.”

“If we, both directly, and through other services working with families, can make parents more aware of our work, then children would greatly benefit from a more child focused approach. We are on Cheshire East Council’s ‘Livewell Cheshire’ website and have received two referrals from parents in the last three months who searched on there for support. This has been one way that we have informed parents.”

Please may I endorse what Brian has said as we have discussed this. There is much work that is completed in the contact centre which is listening and signposting and may not translate into a contact. Equally there are many self-referrals for whom the process of contact involves working their way towards an agreement. Contact centres can facilitate this.

Liz, deputy co-ordinator at Westwood House Child Contact Centre

Liz went on to say: “Time with parties to disseminate clear, independent information as a pathway forward prior to court is a priority. (This is not addressed during a mediation assessment should this be followed). It would help both parties impartially to understand the time, cost, harm and emotional involvement involved in the completion of a case through court. As would an understanding of the long-term parenting challenge. Keeping the ultimate well-being of the child at the centre is key and not focusing on the disputes and upsets of adults. Contact centres are very good at bringing this realisation home as they work closely with the parents gradually building up trust. The SPIP is vastly useful and would help all families (used in many cases but not DA cases) it has many principles that are applicable to all.”

Most of the families that attend our contact centre have been through court.  Even if families are aware of contact centres, if the resident parent is not willing to allow the non-resident parent contact, this will inevitably end up in the hands of the court. We have had cases of self-referral where the resident parent does not agree to the contact so contact cannot go ahead. 

Sandra, co-ordinator at Uxbridge Child Contact Centre

Sandra went on to tell us: “It is difficult to say whether any of our families where courts were involved would have come to a contact centre of their own accord without court though it is doubtful (given the fact that many of the parents do not wish to come into contact with each other), unless they had perhaps engaged in mediation first.”

Many families really don’t need to bother the court system. A large number of our families have court orders, and we have noticed that there are some who seem to rely on the courts to make their decisions for them. They can’t seem to discuss forward planning without a court date.

Nicolette, co-ordinator at Avenue Child Contact Centre

Nicolette went on to say “I think it would be great if parents could come direct to contact centres. I have often wondered though, how would this happen? I know NACCC do a great job getting the word out about centres, but a lot of families just don’t know about us until ordered to find their nearest centre. Some kind of move to make people know about child contact centres, how to find out what we do, and how to find their nearest centre would be really helpful. But how do we do that? I would be happy to help if there was a way to get the information out there.”

I have only recently dealt with private law cases as my background is in social care. The transition from public to private law has been a real eyeopener for me as private referrals are so very different compared with local authority. Local authority cases are very structured with the social worker guiding the referral throughout and proceedings have to be resolved within 26 weeks (in my experience). This time scale will be explained to parents at the beginning which manages expectations. This is a much better time scale for a child. Planning of interventions happen in parallel with different services happening at the same time if necessary to ensure that the case is resolved within the timescale.

Jennifer, Director at Support & Supervised Family Contact Centre Ltd

Jennifer went on to tell us: “Private supported and supervised contact referrals do not have this structure, no neutral party guiding the process and can be very hard. The timescale and amount of money the service will cost is open ended and it means that in order to get a decision parents sometimes have no option but to go to court. Once the judge has spoken and the court decision is in place events tend to move much quicker. I have worked with parents nearly at the point of losing their house as the case has been extended until the point that they have no money left. Even if parents undergo a MIAM in many cases these are not effective as they should be as the situation is so raw. The non-resident parent may not have anywhere to live at that point, and it can be very emotional.”

“A shake up is certainly needed. There is a huge place for supported and handover contact but something needs to be done to provide more structure, progression and after care. Unfortunately, some parents continue using a contact centre after it is really needed as it provides security of not being accused of anything.”

Family Solutions Group – better outcomes for separating families

The Family Solutions Group (a multi-disciplinary group with practical experience of working with separated parents and their children outside of the court arena) has come up with some core recommendations covering five key areas – that children come first, there should be early information and assessment, positive parenting relationships, public education and language and political oversight.

The group agrees that:

Court is not the right place for all families.  Some need court intervention, but a significant number need other forms of support, and court proceedings will only intensify difficulties for the family… Families need support that is not purely legal, such as therapeutic support, information about parenting when separated, managing emotions, conflict resolution, plus information about support pathways for their children.

Family Solutions Group

The group have put together recommendations to ensure that all families get access to information and assessment of issues at an early stage before issues escalate.

Find out more on their new website.

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