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Enforcement of Contact Orders - Are the Court's powers sufficient?

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Most applications for contact are made by non-resident parents who wish to have a continued relationship with their children and are unable to do so by agreement with the parent with care.

A Contact Order is an Order requiring the person with whom the child resides to allow the child to have contact with the person named in the Order, in accordance with the prescribed arrangements. However for many non-resident parents, things are not that simple. Being successful in an application for contact is often just the beginning in terms of actually having contact with the child, as it is often the case that the parent with care fails to comply with their obligations under the Order. In such cases, a further application can be made to the Court for the Order to be enforced.

The question of whether the Court’s powers to enforce Contact Orders are sufficient was recently explored by researchers at the University of Exeter and the University of Oxford. They observed 215 applications made nationally and came to the conclusion that the answer is yes. Their research was published in the report - Enforcing contact orders: problem-solving or punishment?

The Court has a number of powers to enforce Contact Orders which include issuing a warning notice of the penalties of non-compliance when the Order is made, making an Order for costs, changing the child’s residence, making an Order for unpaid community work to be undertaken and even imprisonment. However, are these penalties being imposed as often as they should be?

The study found that a problem with enforcement applications “…is that the remedies available to address non-compliance give the courts little room for manoeuvre”. Nevertheless, it was concluded that “adequate punitive sanctions are in place, are mostly used when needed and can secure compliance” and “in most cases the court appeared to adopt the ‘appropriate’ approach for the particular type of case”.

The report states that “Courts were judged to be sufficiently robust in the great majority of cases, given that few cases involved implacable hostility. There were as many examples of courts being too robust as being not robust enough”.

It was recognised that “…very few enforcement cases fit the popular media image of the implacably hostile resident parent” and that “this stereotype does not capture the full picture available to the courts where most enforcement cases involve troubled or conflicted sets of parents or significant safety issues”. Therefore, it was found that “it would be helpful for policy attention to refocus away from the few implacably hostile cases and towards finding sustainable, safe and child-centred solutions for the full range of enforcement cases”.