January 28, 2015

Contact centre closures leave parents and children in cold

More than 40 contact centres that are lifelines for separating parents and their children have closed since legal aid was axed for most family matters.

A report from the National Association for Child Contact Centres (NACCC) shows that last year only 9,000 children used a centre. This compares with 15,000 in 2013. Referrals from solicitors also halved over the same period.

The centres are designed as neutral spaces where parents who can’t agree access arrangements can meet their children to enjoy time together. Now centres are closing at unprecedented rates – and in some parts of England and Wales, including the north, there are none at all.

The government promised to put children at the heart of its sweeping changes to its family court system. Yet these disturbing statistics from NACCC demonstrate further chipping away of a decent support system for both parents and children.

As regular readers of our blog know, Jones Myers has been very vocal about the impact of the demise of legal aid on families. We warned that axing funding would lead to more parents representing themselves in court and to increased stress on the whole family. However, we could not have predicted that these vital children’s contact centres would also fall under the axe because they rely heavily on solicitors referring clients.

Sadly, the closures are likely to hit fathers hardest as they are often the ones most likely to be struggling to sustain relationships with children following separation or divorce.

NACCC is launching a campaign to encourage parents to use the contact centre and to stress that they don’t need to be referred via lawyers or the courts.

Chief executive Elizabeth Coe said: “Given that family breakdown costs the country an estimated £49 billion a year, family legal aid cuts may prove a false economy unless more is done to let families know that the contact centres are there to help, and parents can apply to centres directly themselves.

“The best outcomes for children following a separation come when parents can work together and where conflict is reduced. Contact centres can facilitate this at a time when parents are themselves struggling emotionally.

“We want to ensure that this message is clear: families can access child contact centres directly and they don’t have to go through the courts and legal system.”

We would wholeheartedly support NACCC’s campaign. Without its contact centres some parents could go months without seeing their sons and daughters. That is surely a scenario that sits uneasily within a family justice system designed to focus on the best interests of the child.

Have you an experience of using child contact centres, or do you have any views on these closures? Please leave a comment below, drop us an e-mail or tweet us