Legal aid cuts to blame for contact centre closuresJanuary 26, 2015
The National Association of Child Contact centres (NACCC) have warned that centres across England and Wales are being closed at an increasingly fast rate. They report that 40 contact centres have been forced to close in the last 18 months, making up 10% of all centres and leaving parents in some areas without access to one.
The centres provide a space for children to have contact sessions with their parents during child arrangement dispute, and are managed by 6,000 volunteers. A manager at one of the centres, Sarah Avery, explained that they enable the continuation of the relationship between a non-resident parent and their child following a separation. She said: “We offer a breathing space for children to spend time with the parents they don’t live with while the stress and strain of separation is resolved”. The NACCC reported however that only 9,000 children had visited one of their centres in 2014, compared to the 15,000 who visited the year before.
In nine out of ten instances the non-resident parent is the father of the child; Elizabeth Coe, chief executive of the NACCC, warned therefore that losing the space in which to meet their children would have an unequal effect on fathers.
The NACCC believe legal aid cuts to be the cause of the problem; families are referred to the centres by solicitors, and these referrals have decreased by half since 2013. They report that only half as many separating couples with children are accessing legal advice from the family courts following the cuts to legal aid, causing the significant drop in referrals to the centres. Elizabeth Coe said that: “Parents are walking away because they don’t know who to contact for help; normally their first port of call would be a solicitor, but that is not happening now.”
An awareness campaign about the issue has been launched by the NACCC this week in an attempt to inform parents of the centres, and to encourage them to take advantage of the valuable opportunity for contact that they can provide.
Amanda Adeola comments: “Contact centers have always played an important part in the work that we do as family solicitors. It provides a place for the continuance of the relationship between parents and their children and it is important that this service continues to remain available for all those who need it. When people separate, a number of issues may arise which affects the relationship with their children and having a safe place to continue to promote that relationship is key to the wellbeing of children and in some ways also assists the separated parties in trusting each other.