Concern over new contact powers in the Children and Adoption Act

09 DEC 2008

The remaining provisions of Part 1 of the Children and Adoption Act 2006 came into force on 8 December 2008. The principal change made by Part 1 of the Act is the insertion of a series of new provisions (sections 11A to 11P) into the Children Act 1989 to give the courts more flexible powers to facilitate child contact and enforce contact orders made under the Children Act 1989. New facilitative measures in the Act include giving courts the power to require parents to undertake a "contact activity" such as attending relevant parenting programmes or classes, or information sessions, before a contact order is made.

Where a contact order has been breached, there are provisions in the Act to enforce contact orders, enabling the courts to impose unpaid work on the person who breaches a contact order. The courts will also be able to order payment of financial compensation for losses incurred as a result of failure to comply with a contact order (for example the cost of a holiday which was wasted). This will give the courts greater flexibility in dealing with breaches of contact orders, and will be in addition to the existing powers to treat the breach of the order as a contempt of court.

Fathers' groups and Judges have often complained at the lack of effective powers available to the courts to deal with parents who block contact without good reason.

Resolution, the family law solicitors' group, has warned that the new powers are unlikely to help those going through family breakdown without a properly funded national network of contact support services.

Chris Goulden, Chair of Resolution's Children Committee said: "The principles behind these new powers are laudable but they are unlikely to bring about any meaningful improvement unless the new services are up and running, properly funded and readily available for the Courts to refer families to.

"At the present moment there is a disturbing lack of clarity as to what activities will be available, where, when and who will pay for them.

Whilst the cost of attending some contact activities looks set to be covered for those on legal aid, other families on low incomes will have to pay fees which could range from £200 - £2500, unless they can prove that payment would cause them financial hardship. The introduction of 'means testing' adds a layer of bureaucracy and unnecessary delay, accodring to Mr Goulden.

Family Justice Council member Jane Craig said: "The Family Justice Council broadly welcomes the coming into force of the Children and Adoption Act 2006, but we do have concerns regarding the availability of the contact activities that will be vital to its success.

"The Council appreciates that the introduction of contact activities, such as parenting classes and information sessions, will give the courts more flexible powers to facilitate child contact. However, we are concerned that services for parents, needed to make contact happen, may not be available in all areas, resulting in a 'postcode lottery'.

"The Government must ensure that work is done to make contact activities accessible to those who need them throughout England and Wales.

"We will monitor the operation of the new legislation through our network of Local Family Justice Councils. We will provide feedback to the Government on the effectiveness of the Act and will work to ensure that best practice is adopted countrywide."

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