If parents can’t agree about where their children live when they split up, or on the contact arrangements surrounding the absent parent, the courts can decide the detail to be included in a contact order. However, despite the horror stories you hear about ex-partners fighting over every detail of both financial settlement and the arrangements around children, only 10% of separated parents need to use the courts to reach agreement – and only 10% of those have serious enforcement issues as a follow on.
New figures from the Nuffield Foundation, which commissioned a study by the University of Exeter, throw some interesting light on contact orders and battles (or not) that couples have around them and the fight to maintain regular contact with their children.
For one thing, it acknowledges that there are some implacably hostile mothers (interesting that it specifically states mothers rather than fathers) who deny contact and flout the orders but very few end up being pursued by the court (around four per cent). It is fair to say that the cases we tend to hear about and that prompt calls from action groups for a change in the law to help fathers better maintain contact with their children, are few and far between. They are though, of course, devastating for the fathers involved. That is why there was such disappointment that the recent family law changes announced did not include more tools to tackle mothers who ignore contact orders. (Read our recent blog on that topic The Great Shared Parenting Illusion).
In fact, the study shows that most enforcement cases concern parents where conflict is so high it actively prevents them making the contact order work day-to-day (55%). So it is not that one is deliberately ignoring what has been agreed with the court, it is more that they are at such loggerheads they cannot bring themselves to co-operate with each other to make it work, agree handover times and places, manage any variances from the agreement etc. This is quite startling. The starting point, as far as the law is concerned in any family law case, is to make the wellbeing of any children the priority. Our message to clients is always the same on this – that children should come first and any grievances with an ex need to be put to one side where arrangements around the children are concerned. It appears that message is still not getting through to many couples.
Enforcement cases are, it seems, going through the court system faster than original contact cases and, on balance, this has to be the right approach. Help out the families already having problems with contact arrangements before stepping in to help those who cannot agree those arrangements in the first place.
In fact, taking the report as a whole, the conclusion is that the courts appear to be getting contact enforcement “about right” in terms of robustness of response, which is heartening, particularly for those dads struggling to maintain a relationship with their children after a break-up with the mum. What this research doesn’t show though is how many more “unseen” cases of implacable hostility there are out there when the dad doesn’t pursue it to court due to lack of funds or just feeling utterly defeated? These are the cases we need to find and help most.