A contact centre that provides a safe environment for separated parents to spend time with their children will close next month following a sharp fall in solicitor referrals as a result of legal aid cuts.
Footprints Child Contact Centre was set up in Bradford, West Yorkshire, 18 years ago. Referrals are made through solicitors or CAFCASS (Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service).
Coordinator Doreen Wheatley confirmed the last session will take place on 13 August.
The centre opens on alternative Saturdays between 9.30am-2.30pm and alternative Thursday evenings between 4.30pm-6.30pm. Families pay an annual £110 administration fee. Some funding is received from CAFCASS.
Wheatley said the centre dealt with around 40 families within a year of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act coming into force in April 2013. Numbers fell to 30 in the second year. This year, there have been six referrals.
Difficulties in attracting volunteers have also contributed towards the decision to close.
Razia Jogi (pictured), director and head of family law at Switalskis Solicitors in Bradford, said she spoke to Wheatley at least three times a week pre-LASPO.
Jogi said: ‘The centre was crucial in assisting, managing and progressing contact situations at fragile situations. LASPO, however, brought about a crushing change.
‘Many parents, embroiled in contact disputes, simply do not have the funds to enlist the help of lawyers, and the majority of such a group do not have the confidence and wherewithal to go through the court system whilst acting as litigants in person.’
The Law Society said contact centres could be a valuable way of ensuring that children retain contact with both parents during hostile relationship breakdowns.
‘But without early legal advice, parents often do not know that such places even exist, let alone how they could help the family,’ a spokesperson said.
Elspeth Thomson, chair of Resolution’s legal aid committee, said she hoped the centre’s closure was not the start of a longer-term trend of highly specialised services gradually disappearing from communities across the country.