Elizabeth Coe represented NACCC and child contact centres on the ‘Westminster Dialogue’ panel on Tuesday. The meeting discussed the new substituted practice direction “Practice Direction 12J – Child Arrangements & Contact Order: Domestic Violence and Harm” and the paper “Westminster Dialogue Norman Hartnell Response”. The substituted practice direction was announced by Sir James Munby, (President of the Family Division and NACCC Patron) in September.
Many changes to the new practice direction have come about through the work of domestic abuse campaigning groups and the ‘All-Party Parliamentary Group on Domestic Violence Parliamentary Briefing (published last year). There are now changes to the guidance given to judges in child contact cases (in England and Wales) when there is an allegation of domestic abuse which will help ensure that children are no longer at risk. The direction specifically mentions that if there is a risk of harm (to the child involved or the other parent) then it not appropriate for a supported contact centre to be used:
“Where a risk assessment has concluded that a parent poses a risk to a child or to the other parent, contact via a supported contact centre, or contact supported by a parent or relative, is not appropriate.” (See Practice Direction 12J point 38)
There was discussion and debate regarding whether the practice direction sufficiently covered the issues of emotional harm caused by contact being withheld and delays in this being set up between children and their parents:
“The law has of course been changed to recognise that the continuing involvement of both parents in the life of a child is deemed beneficial unless unsafe, but….it ought therefore to follow that an unjustified withholding of contact thus denying such continuing involvement is by definition ‘harmful’”(See Westminster Dialogue Paper point 1d)
Elizabeth stressed that as a practitioner in family proceedings she had met very few people who said “over my dead body will that person have contact”, although there were a few. “Most of those I met were devastated by the experience, felt betrayed, lost self-esteem, and were going through the loss cycle which is a process which starts with shock, on to denial, anger, depression and will finally become acceptance. Some people will yo yo back and forth between anger and depression and can sometimes take a long time to get to acceptance, and this may require some therauputic input. This takes time.”
She went on to say:
“Delay in sorting this can be considerable, meanwhile the child is not having the contact with the non-resident parent. If there was a way for the court upon application to have both parents in and direct them to a mediation session with the prime focus being getting contact started, this may solve one problem. If there are any concerns or the parents do not want to communicate with each other, contact could take place at a contact centre either supported (no risk) or a supervised centre (allegations of risk). The parent who feels aggrieved could then have an opportunity to get some help, and hopefully both parents would soon be able to go to mediation to consider long term arrangements.”
She said that of course it is not necessary for parents to go to the court to get contact arrangements sorted. Parents can apply directly to both mediation and contact centres (the latter through the NACCC website), and this way would certainly reduce delay. Elizabeth also recommended that people attending should read the ‘EIF Commissioner Guide: Reducing the impact of interparental conflict on children’ to fully appreciate how separating families need to be supported.