Cuts close child contact centres
More than 40 centres which keep children in touch with separated parents have closed in the past 18 months following cuts in the legal aid budget, according to a new report.
The closures have hit hundreds of children across England and Wales who want to keep in touch with their mothers and fathers after they split up.
The National Association for Child Contact Centres (NACCC) blamed a lack of solicitor referrals because of the spending cuts, which it said had halved the number of parents applying for help through family courts.
Large areas of the north of England and south and west Wales have no child contact centres, said the report.
The closures will have a disproportionate impact on fathers, who are more likely to give up on building relationships with their children, said the NACCC.
Chief executive Elizabeth Coe said: "Given that family breakdown costs the country an estimated £49 billion a year, family legal aid cuts may prove a false economy unless more is done to let families know that the contact centres are there to help, and parents can apply to centres directly themselves.
"The best outcomes for children following a separation come when parents can work together and where conflict is reduced. Contact centres can facilitate this at a time when parents are themselves struggling emotionally.
"We want to ensure that this message is clear: families can access child contact centres directly and they don't have to go through the courts and legal system."
Justice Minister Simon Hughes said: "Child contact centres provide a valuable service to families who need a safe and neutral venue for children to see their parents after a divorce or separation.
"There has been no withdrawal or reduction in Cafcass (Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service) funding for child contact centres and additional support is available to individual centres that need it.
"It is not necessary to use a lawyer or make a court application to access a child contact centre.
"We are working with the National Association of Child Contact Centres on raising awareness of the role of child contact centres and how to access them."
Andrew Newbury, head of family law at Slater & Gordon, said: "The drop in solicitor referrals to contact centres is another unexpected impact of the legal aid cuts to family work.
"Without specialist advice from family lawyers, how would people know that facilities such as contact centres exist?
"The cuts to legal aid in family work are having a huge impact on many separating couples. There is a huge rise in people dealing with the court process without a solicitor. As they don't understand the court rules, this is causing delay in the system with many cases now taking far longer to conclude.
"For some, that may mean not seeing their children for many months."