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Contact Centres – Less is More

Before I get into the body of my views on contact centres, you, the reader best take a look at this press release from Alison Houston,
Judicial Communications Officer at the Lord Chief Justice’s Office, which purports to contain comment from Mr Justice Stephens.

Here’s the link, but I’ve replicated it in full underneath. It is a press release after all…


Embargoed until 21.00 on 23 February 2012

Thursday 23 February 2012


Mr Justice Stephens, a High Court Judge, today paid tribute to the work carried out by volunteers when he spoke at the opening of a new Child Contact Centre in Ballynahinch.

Praising the role of child contact centres, Mr Justice Stephens said they provide a safe, friendly and neutral environment where children of separated families can spend time with one or both parents and sometimes other family members.   He said it is essential in cases of separation to maintain and develop, if possible, contact between children and their non-resident parent:

“Many couples after separation manage the decisions about contact on their own, with little or no external support.  However arranging child contact post-parental separation is for many families an ongoing and contentious issue.  Many families require external help to make contact happen and [centres such as this] provide that service.”

Mr Justice Stephens said that contact centres not only enable contact to take place but enable parents to build their own confidence in the contact arrangements so that contact can move incrementally, at a pace dictated by the child, to activity based contact outside the centre, then to a neutral venue in the extended family or with a close friend, and then hopefully to contact in the non-resident parent’s home and eventually to overnight and holiday contact.

The judge said it was important to highlight a number of essential features of Child Contact Centres:

  • The service provided is independent.  The staff do not report back to the courts or social services.  The staff do not take sides – they are not on the side of either parent or on the side of the child protection authorities.
  • The centre is neutral.  It offers neutrality in venue, staff and service to families.
  • The centre provides a safe, secure, warm and friendly environment.
  • The staff are fully trained to stay impartial and not to take sides in any conflict.
  • The Ballynahinch Child Contact Centre is accredited by the National Association of Child Contact Centres and is part of the Northern Ireland Network of Child Contact Centres.  This means that families can be reassured that staff conform to the national standards.  It also means that staff can keep up to date on developments and changes in society and how these impact on families.

Mr Justice Stephens concluded by saying that the profile of Child Contact Centres deserves to be raised because of the contribution they make and the professional services they provide:

“We are indebted to those people who work in Child Contact Centres and that work deserves to be recognised.  We are fortunate to have a Northern Irish network of child contact centres and I would like to encourage as many other local communities as possible to think in terms of providing similar services.”


If you have any further enquiries about this or other court related matters please contact:

Alison Houston
Judicial Communications Officer
Lord Chief Justice’s Office
Royal Courts of Justice
Chichester Street

Telephone:  028 9072 5921
Fax:  028 9023 6838
E-mail: Alison.Houston@courtsni.gov.uk

Firstly, my post is not a go at the staff at the contact centres locally, as they are generally well meaning individuals, charitable and giving of their time.  However, there should be little if any need for them to give up their valuable free time at all. And here’s why.

The reason there are contact centres is because magistrates’ and judges wont face their brother and sister lawyers down, mostly over itsy bitsy disputes, that most of the public would be horrified to discover are viewed as justiciable issues.

Contact centres are akin to rewarding truanting school children with a trip to a theme park. Mothers who stand in the way of contact need to be dealt with swiftly and severely, to ensure that contact continues in a normal manner and not at the mother’s pace,  (or oft-times the mother’s solicitor or barristers pace).

That’s it in a nutshell. No appeasement or pandering to the mother over her concerns that she didn’t have when she was together with the father of her child. Then she had no problem leaving him in charge of the children whilst she went out with friends or on hen weekends. No, she had no concerns then, but she has now, and of course she must be listened to.

Errr, no actually.  The mother and her lawyers should be told in no uncertain terms that unless they prove within 72 hours at a fact finding hearing that the child is at risk of harm, the court WILL order at LEAST substantial overnight contact and a Shared Residence Order. And until that hearing can take place, if the mother is so keen to avail of a contact centre there should be a charge of £150 per hour TO THE MOTHER for the use of the contact centre. Payable by her, not the father or Legal Services Commission.

At that stage, most piddling disputes would come to a shuddering end, cases would be shortened and normalcy would be achieved without huge cost to the public purse. And we could pay off some of the national debt with the money saved; or pay for more teachers; or build a new hospital or two, or employ more nurses. Not line the pockets of lawyers with public money.

If that were to happen, the brother and sister lawyers of the judge or magistrate would need to start praying for a crimewave, or an increase in house sales to make up the difference in lost earnings.

Who says this? I say this; a McKenzie friend in courts across the UK, who has heard some of the biggest load of codswallop over almost 15 years from both lawyers and their clients.

Feel free to let the Justice Committee and/or Alison Houston at the Lord Chief Justice’s office know what you think of contact centres in Northern Ireland. I for one don’t know any parent who enjoyed the experience, and I doubt whether anyone ever properly parented their children in a draughty church hall with worn out toys and strangers to their left and right. And I doubt if any of the children preferred being in a contact centre to being cared for by their father and his family.

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