Legal aid cuts have fuelled a surge in the number of separating parents without solicitors making self-referrals to child contact centres to make their situation less stressful, it has emerged.
Figures published this week by the National Association of Child Contact Centres shows that self-referrals from parents have jumped from 3.7% of total referrals in 2009/10 to 35.8% in 2018/19. Solicitor referrals fell sharply in the same period, from 67.8% to 21.9%.
Child contact centres are neutral places where children of separated families can spend time with their non-resident parents and family members in a comfortable and safe environment. Family law was hit hard by legal reforms introduced by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012.
A good practice guide on contact centre referrals published by family law group Resolution highlights the crucial role that solicitors play.
The guide states that it is solicitors' role to ensure parents have realistic expectations when they have been referred to a contact centre. Practitioners can also review whether contact needs to remain in the centre or if it can be safely progressed elsewhere, freeing up a 'valuable resource' for another family.
Elizabeth Coe, the association's chief executive, said: 'We have noticed a huge change in source of referrals since legal aid reforms led to a reduction in provision for most family cases. Families who are going through a separation now often need to negotiate the family law system without the support of a legal professional.
'Our centre staff and volunteers are trained to support families through this process but the potential of increased stress and anxiety for parents is significant and the implications of reduced support is having an impact beyond child arrangements.'
Sarah Avery, manager of Cheltenham Child Contact Centre, said the emotional strain of parents having to manage legal processes without support from a solicitor can be huge.