Research has been released this week by the Nuffield Foundation on the effectiveness of provisions designed to secure compliance with contact orders. The research is the first time that the measures, brought in approximately 5 years ago, have been assessed and their effectiveness analysed.
Non-compliance with contact orders is still a significant problem in children law cases, with hundreds of parents needing to issue enforcement proceedings each year. Penalties can include fines, unpaid work and in more extreme cases, prison sentences. Courts can also change residence as between the parents or even take the child into care if a parent is deliberately thwarting a relationship between the child and other parent.
The research found that the punitive aspect of the provisions is by and large adequate in securing compliance, but suggests that the courts need to make greater use of therapeutic methods in the more difficult cases, such as family counselling and additional support for the children involved.
The report does however highlight concern about risk assessment and how the courts can adequately consider the risks to the child when there are allegations of abuse or substance abuse for example, especially in cases where funding is very limited and expert tests and reports cannot be obtained. The tension between ensuring that Contact Orders are adhered to and ensuring that compliance will not place children at risk of harm is a fine balance and one which may be harder for the courts now that legal aid has been reduced.
It is hoped that the research will be taken into account when considered what changes to practice are required to achieve the best possible outcome for the majority of children. In the meantime, the message remains that the courts will take all possible steps to ensure that contact orders are adhered to in cases where contact is appropriate, and that the methods for doing this are set to increase in time. This will come as positive news to many parents, who are encouraged not to give up if contact is proving difficult.
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