A contact order under the Children Act 1989 imposes a legal obligation upon the person with whom the child lives (a.k.a. the resident parent) to let the child in question have contact with the person specified in the order. There is nothing in the order imposing on the named person an obligation to exercise his/her right to contact. However, a set of provisions under the Family Law Act 1986 allow the courts to intervene if the person refuses to return the child to the resident parent.
On the other hand, where the resident parent refuses to comply with the order and does not permit the contact to take place without reasonable grounds, this may amount to contempt of court, which is punishable with a fine or in extreme cases imprisonment. The courts have made it clear that imprisonment is an extreme last resort measure, which is only to be used in exceptional cases.
In any family proceedings whenever a question arises in respect of the welfare of any child, the court has the power to make contact or residence orders in respect of that child on applications by a relevant person. On the other hand, courts can make such orders on their own initiative.
Different provisions exist for application procedure depending on the person making the application and his/her relationship with the child. Certain persons may apply for contact order as of right. Those include parents, guardians or special guardians or other persons who have parental responsibility.
Further, specifically for contact and residence orders without the leave of court can be applied by any party to a marriage or civil partnership where the child is considered a child of the family or by any person with whom the child has been living for a period of at least three years.
In addition, other persons can apply if they have the consent of the person in whose favour a residence order has been made or the consent of the local authority where the relevant child is in care.
On the other hand, other people, even if they are relatives without parental responsibility, would require firstly applying for leave of the court and if such is granted file an application for a contact order. On considering an application for leave the court will have regard to the nature of the order applied for, the connection of the applicant with the child, the risk of harmful disruption in the child’s life if the order is made and where the child is in the care of a local authority, their plans for the child’s future as well as the wishes and feelings of the child’s parents.
The court may grant the application for leave on paper or direct that a date is fixed for a hearing to take place. Order can be made without notice or by consent, on written evidence or after an oral hearing and in favour of any person in accordance with the circumstances as detailed above.
Contact can be broadly categorised into two types- direct and indirect contact. Whenever direct contact is ordered it could be for a short or long visit, stay including overnight, holidays or supervised contact at a contact centre.
Supervised contact is appropriate and used where a child has suffered or is at risk of suffering harm during the contact. In the course of such a third party provides a one-to-one supervision to ensure none of those risks are materialised.
On the other hand, indirect contact is facilitated through letters, cards or phone calls. Sometimes those can be restricted to a set number per month or per year depending on the reason for direct contact not to be allowed. Where there is a suspicion of a high risk of harm to the child during contact and the child is in the care of a local authority, it may be so important for the whereabouts of the child to be protected as to require letters, cards etc to be sent through social workers.
Which type of contact is to be ordered is within the powers of the judge giving the order and is considered depending on the risk to the child. Generally, a positive attitude towards direct contact can be seen by the courts. In addition, there is a presumption in favour of contact operating between parents and their children. It is important to note that no such presumption is established in relation to step-parents or grandparents even though in practical terms they could have a great impact on the development of the relevant child.
Normally contact orders last until the child turns 16, unless there are exceptional circumstances where the order can have effect for a longer period and end at the latest when the child is 18.
On other occasions the order can cease before the 16th birthday of the child. An example is where an order was made in respect of a parent and the parents reunite and live together for a period of at least 6 months.
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