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Contact is the right of a child to maintain a relationship with the parent who is not deemed to be his primary carer and with whom the child does not have his primary dwelling.

Unlike concepts such as 'access' or 'visitation', contact is NOT the right of the parent.

Contact is not defined in legislation and there is a wide variety of parent/child interaction which can be described as ‘contact’.  The word ‘otherwise’ in the legislation allows for contact to be either ‘direct’: that is visits, staying overnight, etc., or ‘indirect’, which means letters, cards and emails only.  ‘Indirect contact‘ is a device by which the courts may create the impression that contact is taking place when in fact it is not, or is fatally compromised.

Direct contact

Direct contact involves the child and parent being together in one place; it may either be ‘visiting’ or ‘staying contact’:

· Visiting Contact is when your child comes to visit you at your address, but does not stay overnight.

· Staying Contact is when your child stays overnight according to the ‘tariff’ determined by the court.

Supported Contact

Supported Contact is conducted in a contact centre under supervision by the centre staff where the parent and child are in the same room as other families.

Supervised contact

Supervised Contact adds a further layer of humiliation by having a third party supervise the contact between you and your children.  The supervisor may well be unqualified or a member of the centre manager’s family.  Sessions are commonly limited to just an hour and can be very expensive.  Their purpose is more to allow social workers and CAFCASS officers to observe parents’ interactions with their children than to enable contact.  There is no evidence to support the use of supervised contact, and you should never allow supervised contact to continue beyond the duration specified by the court.

In Re C (Abduction: Residence and Contact) [2005] EWHC 2205 the Court ruled that under the Human Rights Act there must be a presumption of unsupervised contact unless there are good reasons for supervision. Quote this ruling by Mostyn J if you are ordered supervised contact for no good reason (i.e. substantiated allegations),

On the facts of this case it is clear to me that supervised contact would only have been appropriate if there was the most compelling evidence that in some way S’s best interests would be jeopardised by unsupervised, normal contact.  Given the terms of the Strasbourg jurisprudence [the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms 1950] to which I have referred, it is almost as if there is a presumption in favour of normal contact and it is for those who say it is inappropriate to prove by clear evidence why this is so.

The ‘Strasbourg jurisprudence’ says at Article 8,

1. Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence.

2. There shall be no interference by a public authority with the exercise of this right except such as is in accordance with the law and is necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security, public safety or the economic well-being of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.

The courts ignore the Re C principle.  In 75% of cases in which supervised contact is ordered, parents go on to have unsupervised contact.  This raises the question of whether contact should have been supervised in the first place.

Indirect contact

No reasonable person pretends that indirect contact is anything but a sham; in V v V [2004] EWHC 1215 (Fam) Mrs Justice Bracewell equated indirect contact with the judge ‘giving up’.

Indirect contact routinely means, for example, that a parent can send their child no more than one letter a month – which the resident parent need not acknowledge; or even that a parent may receive a photograph of the child every 6 months.  That is still classed as ‘contact.’  Indirect contact isn’t mentioned in the Children Act and is a judicial invention described in the Family Court Bench Book, a simplified reference guide for judges.

Family judges and CAFCASS believe that once a parent has been separated from his children for a period of time, there must then be a period of only indirect contact, followed by a period of very slow reintroduction, preferably in a contact centre.  This is why it is important for resident parents – and their legal teams – to establish a status quo during which there has been no contact.  This period does not need to be very long; just a few months will suffice.

There is no research-based evidence that this is necessary, or that it results in normal relationships being resumed and protected.  Anyone who has ever been away from their children for a long period of time – in hospital, on military service, even in prison – will know that there is no need to be gradually reintroduced to their children.  The children will be delighted and eager to see them, and there will be much hugging and celebration.  The concept of gradual reintroduction is the invention of the  divorce industry.

It is vital that you get indirect contact changed to direct contact – even if it is supervised – as soon as you can; otherwise it will remain indirect indefinitely.  Indirect contact provides an ideal breeding ground for parental alienation.

If you are ordered only indirect contact:

· Never send a letter, always send a postcard to your child.  Your child may never be allowed to open a letter but they may catch a glimpse of a post card.   Always post so that it arrives on a Saturday morning when children are off school and are more likely to see it before the resident parent does.

· Don’t write anything which may be contentious or provocative; the resident parent will inevitably object.  It may become necessary for CAFCASS to vet whatever you write.  Don’t promise direct contact or anything which can be obstructed or refuted.

· Always send cards by Recorded Delivery; it doesn’t guarantee that they will reach your child, but it does ensure that the other parent cannot claim they have not been sent.

· Send small presents; good presents are not always expensive ones.

· Copy any photographs you send and keep the copies to show to CAFCASS when they see you.

· Stay in close contact with the school, always ensuring that your child knows you are interested in their work and progress, that you see his teacher regularly and that you are so proud of him and the picture he has painted, story she has written, etc.  Make sure you attend parent-teacher evenings and are as involved in school events as the Contact Order allows.

· Even when there is no indirect contact happening, keep sending cards and letters.  Sometimes the other parent keeps them (not necessarily for the right reasons) and the child may find them or be aware of them – it is still a link with the other parent, however tenuous, and proof that the child has not been forgotten or abandoned.

· Talk to someone.  Getting things off your chest really helps.

Interim contact

The court process is extremely long and drawn out, and getting longer as CAFCASS takes ever longer to assign an officer to prepare whatever report has been directed and to write the report itself.  By the time an officer has been appointed and a report given to the court a year can have passed; don’t let this be a year during which you don’t see your children.

Every application for contact should be accompanied by an application at the Directions Hearing for interim contact to ensure that your relationship with your children keeps going.  Interim contact can be staying or visiting, or may only be indirect, but it is only a temporary measure while you wait for further proceedings.  Interim contact ensures that some contact takes place during the slow court process, pending a full hearing.  You are strongly advised always to request interim contact while you wait for the process to complete or you may not see your child for many months.  You should advise the court and the other side in advance that this is what you intend to do.

The criteria for ordering interim contact were established by Lord Justice Wall in Re D (Contact: Interim Order) [1995] 1 FLR 495,

· Contact must be monitored (usually by CAFCASS);

· The judge must have sufficient information to order contact, even if at the end of proceedings a different order is made;

· If the dispute is only over the amount of contact, an interim order can be made without considering any additional information.

The Court is obliged to process the application and you will get a minimum of a short hearing within a few weeks, giving you the opportunity to explain why your child deserves a relationship with you.  Explain that your application is made in order to keep contact going during the inevitable delays introduced by the system and while you wait for CAFCASS reports, etc.

Remind the judge of the delays likely in any contested case and quote the ‘no delay’ principle.  Emphasise that you are acting in the best interests of your child by ensuring your relationship is not interrupted and that alienation has no chance to develop.  Refute any false allegations.

Ask for a quantum of contact equivalent to the amount you and your child enjoyed before things went pear-shaped.  Understand, though, that the opposing solicitor will challenge your application and ask that the court waits until the CAFCASS reports are in; this sounds reasonable but is really exploiting the unacceptable delay inherent in the system.  If you don’t ask you won’t get.  Your ex’s solicitor will encourage the making of allegations which must then be investigated.  Understand also that the courts tend to err on the side of caution.  Lord Justice Wall adopted this cautious approach in Re D:

The greatest care had to be taken in making an interim order and without hearing oral evidence, to ensure that it was in the interests of the child and that the order did not prejudice the issue.  It was difficult to envisage circumstances in which an interim order for contact could properly be made where the principle of contact was genuinely in dispute and where there were substantial factual issues relating to a child which were unresolved without the Court hearing oral evidence or having the advice of an expert such as a court welfare officer.

Note that until the reports are in and the conflict examined the child is presumed to be safe with the respondent and unsafe with the applicant.  Until the issues are resolved, insist that the court treats you and the respondent equally.  Until an order is made you remain equal under the law.

You’ll need to keep pressure on the court: if the principle of interim contact is accepted at the Directions Hearing ask for the earliest possible date for the hearing for interim contact.  Show your willingness to attend court at short notice and accept a cancellation so the matter can be resolved expeditiously.  Push the court to establish a timetable of realistic targets for hearings and make sure they stick to it.  All this will wrong-foot your ex who will want to introduce as much delay as possible.

No contact

A relatively rare type of Contact Order is an Order for No Contact which is another invention of the courts not contained in the Children Act.  It is unclear whether they are binding both on the resident parent and on the non-resident parent; i.e., whether they order the person with care not to allow contact, or order the non-resident parent not to seek contact.  The rule of thumb is that if the court wants to bind the person with care it makes an Order for No Contact; if it wants to bind the non-resident parent it makes a Prohibited Steps Order.  It can also make both.  Orders for No Contact can be made in situations of severe alienation when older children are refusing to see a parent.