Exeter University Law School have prepared a briefing upon research they have been carrying out, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, into the enforcement of child contact orders. Entitled Enforcing contact orders: are the family courts getting it right?, it is stated to be "the first ever empirical study of enforcement" and is based on case file analysis of a national sample of 215 enforcement cases.
Key points are:
1. Relatively few contact cases return to court seeking enforcement – about 1,400 each year - but they are difficult cases for both policy makers and courts to address.
2. The public perception of enforcement cases is of implacably hostile mothers deliberately flouting contact orders and the courts failing to get tough and ensure compliance. The reality in practice is rather more complex.
3. Implacably hostile mothers do exist, but they are a small minority of enforcement cases. The most common type of case involved parents whose conflicts with each other prevented them from making a contact order work reliably in practice. The second largest group was cases with significant safety concerns, followed by cases where older children themselves wanted to reduce or stop contact.
4. The approach of the court appeared broadly determined by the case type. A ‘coparenting support’ approach was mostly used with conflict cases as a means to set a clearer framework and help parents communicate. A ‘protective approach’ was used mainly with risk cases. A punitive approach was used primarily with the few cases we classified as implacably hostile.
5. Cases were generally processed quickly over a shorter period and with fewer hearings than the original proceedings, especially for the ‘parental conflict’ cases. That brevity can mean absence of delay in getting contact restarted but it also signaled that some cases were dealt with rather cursorily, with limited attention to the underlying causes and effects of the ongoing dispute.
6. There were a small number of cases where the court could have been more robust in dealing with a non compliant parent but equally there a few cases where a punitive approach turned out to be inappropriate. There were rather more cases where the court appeared to minimize safety concerns.
7. Adequate punitive sanctions are in place, are mostly used when needed and can secure compliance. Policy attention should now focus on developing more effective measures to support safe contact across the full range of enforcement cases, particularly high conflict cases where both parents need more help to work together to implement an order.
The briefing can be read here. A full report will be published in September.