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Last Updated: Tuesday, 18 January 2005, 14:58 GMT
Q&A: Child access reform
Parents and child
Most parents avoid resorting to court
The government is launching plans for stricter enforcement of child access orders to stop parents denying former partners access to their child.

Changes will also shift the emphasis more towards mediation over the use of the courts.

Q: What are the new penalties?

Parents who flout court orders could now be electronically tagged - to enforce curfews or house arrest - as a punishment. This might be preceded by community service orders or education programmes.

Q: Why are these new penalties needed?

In the past, judges have only had the "nuclear option" available to them - imprisoning the offending parent for contempt of court, usually for up to a month. Judges are understandably reluctant to imprison a child's primary carer, particularly as the family court system is bound to hold the interests of the child as paramount. As a result, many parents realised they could "play" the system and not be punished.

For some time, there has been support for judges to be given "middle-range options" - penalties that will inconvenience the offending parent without hurting the child.

Q: How many contact orders are made each year?

The Department for Constitutional Affairs estimates that 67,184 contact orders were made during 2003, with about 60 refused for reasons such as domestic violence or danger to the child. Only a handful of people were punished for flouting the orders.

Q: What has caused the changes?

Fathers 4 Justice are likely to claim that their series of high-profile stunts, such as the notorious flour bomb protest in the House of Commons and the infiltration of Buckingham Palace, have created the political momentum for change.

But the Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer, has denied that activists forced the changes, and family lawyers say more subtle enforcement of contact orders has been debated for some time.

Fathers 4 Justice have said they want the changes to be far more radical.

Q: What other changes are planned?

The government also wants more emphasis on the role of mediation - special sessions for separating parents, often presided over by a specially-trained solicitor, as an alternative to court.

Nine out of 10 separated parents never have to resort to court action to establish contact.

But the government stops short of demanding compulsory mediation for all, saying if both parties aren't willing then the sessions are a waste of time. However, the sessions are effectively compulsory for those who want legal aid to fight a court case.

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