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Court Reporters - CAFCASS

Patron: The Rt Hon Sir John Balcombe

President: Her Honour Jean Graham Hall

Vice-Presidents: Dr. John Haynes, Simon Roberts, Janet
Walker, Adrian James

Telephone: 01793-612299 (Day)
Court Welfare Office 01285-860280 (Evenings)

East House
9 East Street
Swindon, SN1 5BU
FAX: 01793-613399



There is, generally, little research into the effects of the level of contact with a non-residential parent on children. Each contact case will turn on its own unique circumstances, but the guidelines set out below are considered to be the framework within which derive the establishment and the quantum of contact.


Every child has the fundamental right to meaningful contact with his/her absent parent (1) (2). Clearly there are factors which may deprive the child of that contact or make it necessary to ensure that the child's welfare is not jeopardised if contact takes place; such factors will include (although not exclusively so) issues of significant harm or the likelihood of such to the child (3), and the child's own wishes and the feelings if (s)he is of an age and understanding to express such views (4). Whilst Public Law emphasises a clear presumption of contact between the child in care and his/her parents, the Children Act 1989 contains no reference to such presumption in Private Law proceedings. There is a mandatory principle of contact, or firm presumption of contact, in some other jurisdictions (5).


I am not aware of any case-law on the quantum of contact per se. Frequency of contact will depend on many factors (6), but in the absence of factors weighing against a certain level of contact, the following may be used as a framework with the contact accelerated or retarded, extended or diminished, as circumstances justify. The underlying principle should be one of an "ascending ladder" of frequency which should remain child focussed at all times. The earlier after parental separation that contact commences, then the easier it becomes for the child to understand and accept, and it establishes a pattern for the future.

In matters which are decided in court by order and where the non-residential parent is obliged to convey the child to his/her home or some other place for contact, then allowance should be made for travelling time as appropriate. Birth to 18 months: Birth is a starting point simply because one has to start somewhere, but, clearly, at a young and vulnerable age great care must be taken over contact arrangements. At an early age, children have short memories and frequent short visits are important (twice a week would be acceptable in normal circumstances). There is no reason why these visits (including some 'outings') cannot be unsupervised and they can gradually increase in length to about three hours at a time over a period.

18 months to 3 years: Established, frequent visits can now be extended to include some meals. By the age of two years, a monthly overnight stay might be possible, encouraged and supported by each parent and carefully monitored for any distress to the child, and leading to more frequent overnight stays during the latter part of this period. Three to five years: As the child moves into the third year, overnight visits can be extended to some two night week-ends, initially once a month. The maintenance of the frequency of contact is important to the child as is the timing of visits from now on. Children have an expectation that promises will be kept and that when contact is due to take place, it actually happens and at the time arranged. By the age of four, short (perhaps 2-3, extending to 3-4 days) holiday periods, especially at Christmas, Easter and during the summer, can be started.

Five to eight years: By the age of five, contact should be established, but school and other developing activities will now begin to have an impact. Weekday contact (unless the parents live in close proximity) may not be so appropriate. However, week-end staying contact can now be extended to alternate week-ends (usually from Friday evening through to Sunday evening, but not excluding the possibility of the child being taken to school on a Monday morning if suitable arrangements can be made between the parents). Holiday periods can also be extended as soon as appropriate to a week at Christmas and at Easter, half the half-term school break, and a couple of weeks during the summer. At times during which contact does not occur, letters/cards are important, and telephone calls can be useful if they can be conducted in 'private' and free from any pressure on the child.

Nine to twelve years: Local interest, friends and peer group contact becomes increasingly important to the child. If good contact has been established over the years, then the flexibility which is required at this age should not cause undue problems. It remains important for the child and "absent" parent to maintain contact at a level which will benefit the child, and it is essential that the residential parent encourages the contact and, while listening to the child's views, not to allow those views to override what would otherwise be n the child's best interests. Staying contact over week-ends and during holiday periods remains important. Thirteen years plus: The child's own wishes and feelings now become much more important as their own "social life" develops, and they move towards greater independence. Nonetheless, contact remains important but, should be seen as flexible and negotiable. Again, if good, meaningful contact has been established over the years, this should not prese
nt a major problem. At this age the child would probably respond to longer, but less frequent, periods of contact - a month during the summer holidays might be reasonable for example. Care needs to be taken over the periods leading up to school examinations, inevitably a stressful period for children who will not want any additional emotional difficulties caused by contact problems.


A responsible parent allows "proper" contact and negotiates with the absent parent over the frequency and timings, clearly demonstrating that they support the principle that meaningful contact is in the child's best interests. Whatever the personal difficulties have been (or which still exist), conflict is the single most important matter for parents to avoid in helping their children through the process of divorce or separation, and, in establishing future contact. Indeed, conflict is a much more important issue for the child than even the quantum of contact. However, if contact issues are contested, then the onus should be on the residential parent to show good reasons why the child's right to meaningful contact with the non-residential parent should be denied


I have been asked to comment on whether or not the guidelines which I have outlined above could form part of Probation Committee policy. The answer is "no" - Committees do not have this function. The Chief Probation Officer is of course, responsible to the Committee for the professional standards of his colleagues. However, under his/her guidance and supervision, Family Court Welfare teams develop their own professional standards in the light of their individual members' experience, expertise and training, and within the philosophy of the Children Act 1989 and the guidelines laid down in National Standards.

I feel that most Family Court Welfare Officers would support what I have said above with the caveat that each case with which they deal has its own particular set of circumstances. Family Court Welfare Officers will share "difficult" cases with their colleagues and continue to develop strategies for dealing with contact cases in the light of experience gained through these consultations, through everyday practice, through training, and by reference to case-law decisions and research findings (8). This Association believes that we should take due note of the experience of "consumer groups" in thinking about our practice.


It remains true that, if the recommendations of the Family Court Welfare Officer can be argued logically, and if they are made in the light of the Children Act 1989 "welfare checklist", they are invariably endorsed by the judiciary (and the Magistrates). However, the views of a Family Court Welfare Officer are not always decisive, and the court can depart from the recommendation made, even without the reporting officer being present in court for cross-examination (Re C (Minor - Access: Attendance of Court Welfare Officer) The Times 21 November 1994) [Notes and References attached]

Notes and References

1. United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (Article 9)

2. Examples in English Case Law.
Re R (A Minor)(Contact)[1993] 2FLR 762
Re W (A Minor)(Contact)[1994] 2FLR 441
Re H (Minors) (Access) [1992] 1FLR 148
Re H (Contact:Principles)[1994] 2FLR 969

3. For example, see: Re M (Contact:Welfare Test)[1995] 1FLR 274 Re D (A Minor)(Contact: Mother's Hostility)[1993] 2FLR1

4. For example, see: Re F (Minors)(Denial of Contact) [1993] 2FLR 677 5. For example: Canada - Divorce Act 1985: Maximum contact principle (ss16 and 17) is mandatory (although not absolute). Maximum contact with both parents is generally presumed to be in the best interests of the child. France - "The courts have accepted the idea that children could share their time equally between their mother and their father, spending alternate weeks with each parent." (The Times, August 25th 1995)

6. Such factors will include: The child's age; bonding - closeness of the parent/child relationship prior to divorce/separation; the conflict between parents, pre- and post-separation (including issues of domestic violence); child abuse - alleged or actual; drug/alcohol abuse; maternal and paternal post-separation adjustment. All decisions re contact must be made in the best interests of the child, assessed from a child-centred perspective.

7. For example, a case from the United States Supreme Court:"Whenever a proposed move unduly disrupts or substantially impairs the non-custodial parent's access rights to the children, the custodial spouse ..... must bear the burden of demonstrating exceptional circumstances ..." (Tropea v Tropea, New York)

8. Research findings (all from the USA) - a few significant extracts:
a) When legal conflict is high, frequent (contact) visits were linked to fewer behaviour problems in the children; i.e. reduced visiting had detrimental effects on behaviour in high conflict situations. (Healy, Malley & Stewart 1990- Amer J of Orthopsychiatry 60 [4] 531-543)
b) Evidence that behaviourial scores and peer relationships are better and spelling and maths scores significantly higher for children where the father contact remains higher after separation, particularly for boys. (Bisnaire, Firestone & Rynard 1990- Ibid 60 [1] 67-76)
c) When children see their father infrequently, fathers are perceived as having less control, offering less support, and providing less punishment compared with children in intact families. (Amato 1987) Children also develop a less positive view of the father-child relationship over time.
d) Low but significant correlation between predictable and frequent contact with the non-custodial parent and more positive child adjustment (unless the father was poorly adjusted or extremely immature). (Hetherington et al 1982; Wallerstein & Kelly 1980; Warshak 1986)
e) Positive relationship between visiting frequency and adjustment in children was stronger when the custodial mother approved of the father's continued contact with the child. (Guidebaldi & Perry 1985; Kurdek 1988)
f) Feelings of guilt, anxiety, depression and loss of self-esteem are common where access is disrupted (D'Andrea 1983)


"Whereas most people would agree that laws should be equitable, balancing the interests of men, women and children post divorce in a fair, consistent manner is difficult to do. This study suggests that changes in the legal system and intervention practices are needed to translate equity from theory to practice. Strategies for supporting non-custodial parenting need to be implemented in the context of the legal (and mental health) system(s). Efforts to minimize perceptions of unfairness and feelings of helplessness could result in more satisfactory and less conflictual relationships for all family members following divorce." Arditti and Allen: 'Understanding Distressed Fathers' Perceptions of Legal and Relational Inequalities Post Divorce'; Family Conciliation Courts Review, Vol. 31, No 4, October 1993 pp461-476)

Alan Sealey (Chairman)

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