Child contact centres, where children meet their separated parents who cannot agree access rights, are disappearing as legal aid cuts take effect.
The National Association for Child Contact Centres (NACCC) says 40 centres have closed in the last 18 months across England and Wales – and the pace of closures is accelerating. It says that, because it can no longer obtain legal aid, the number of parents accessing the family courts to resolve their problems has halved. As a result they are not receiving advice from solicitors who are likely to refer them to the centres.
Last year 9,000 children used a centre, compared with 15,000 in 2013. Referrals from solicitors halved over the same period.
“Parents are walking away because they don’t know who to contact for help,” said Elizabeth Coe, NACCC chief executive. “Normally their first port of call would be a solicitor, but that is not happening now.”
The centres, which receive small contributions from the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass), operate in churches, schools and council buildings, and are staffed by a 6,000-strong army of volunteers. But the lack of referrals has seen 10% of them close already and left many others contemplating closure. Some areas of Britain now have no centres at all, the association warns.
The NACCC will this week launch a publicity campaign to inform people that they can access its centres without having to go through the legal system.
“There has been no withdrawal or reduction in Cafcass funding for child contact centres,” said the justice minister, Simon Hughes. “People don’t need a lawyer or a court application to access a child contact centre. Additional support is available to individual centres that need it.”