Children: Access

House of Lords written question – answered on 3rd July 2012.

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Photo of Lord Roberts of Llandudno Lord Roberts of Llandudno Liberal Democrat

To ask Her Majesty's Government what assessment they have made of the compliance with court orders arising from cases involving the contact between children and their parents following the parents' separation.

To ask Her Majesty's Government what they consider to be a reasonable length of time for the resolution of court cases concerning a parent denied contact with their child.

Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally Deputy Leader of the House of Lords, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords

Applications for contact are private law proceedings under section 8 of the Children Act 1989. Section 1(2) of that Act makes it clear that the court shall have regard to the general principle that any delay in determining the arrangements for a child is likely to prejudice the welfare of that child. The Government have committed to take forward recommendations from the Family Justice Review designed to tackle unnecessary delays in the courts.

Every contact case is different and there is no single pathway for a case to follow. However, revised guidance issued by the President of the Family Division in April 2010 requires that the first hearing should, where practicable, take place within four weeks of the application being issued, and in any event within six weeks.

Prior to the first hearing CAFCASS will undertake safety checks and report the outcome of these to the court. The court will then consider any safety issues and decide how to deal with these. If appropriate and safe the court may decide to make an order for contact at the first hearing.

Where a case cannot be settled at the first hearing the court will decide how the case should progress. That could include: holding a finding of fact hearing to establish any allegation of domestic violence made; adjourning the proceedings to enable the parties to attempt mediation; ordering a welfare report to be prepared by CAFCASS; or directing one or both parties to attend a contact activity designed to promote contact with the child concerned (for example, attendance at a meeting to find out about and consider mediation or participation in a parenting information programme or domestic violence perpetrator programme). In addition, the courts can, and frequently do, make short duration orders to establish or re-establish contact and to enable the parties to test out arrangements for the child with a view to the court making a substantive order to settle the case.

In relation to compliance with contact orders, the family courts have an inherent power to treat breach as a contempt of court, with the sanction of a fine or imprisonment, although this is rarely used in family proceedings. In December 2008 the courts were given wider powers to enforce contact orders through an enforcement order for unpaid work or an order for the payment of financial compensation where a financial loss has been incurred due to a breach. Data from Her Majesty's Courts and Tribunals service shows that in the year April 2011 to March 2012 there were 463 applications for an enforcement order and 260 applications for a financial compensation order.

The Government recognise that non-compliance with contact orders remains an issue which undermines confidence in the family justice system. On 13 June the Government launched a consultation which includes proposals to extend further the range of enforcement powers available to the courts. That consultation closes on 5 September 2012.

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