A recent Court of Appeal case has confirmed the position that, if a child is refusing contact, the resident parent needs to ensure that the child is encouraged to attend contact in the first instance.

This particular case had been before the courts since 2008. The children at the time of issuing were nine and seven. They went to stay with their father and his new wife. The father’s new wife had become angry with the eldest child, grabbed her and forced her onto the sofa, causing her a superficial injury. On returning to their mother the two daughters refused any further contact with their father, save for indirect contact (e.g. by way of letters, cards, emails etc).

The parties went back and forth to court between 2008 until 2015. During that time, further allegations had been raised. By the time the girls got to 16 and 14, there had been several attempts by the court to encourage contact, including the use of therapeutic work, however the children still refused to have anything but indirect contact with their father. As a consequence, the senior family judge sitting in Bristol, made an Order providing only indirect contact and preventing father from issuing further applications. The Court of Appeal did not criticise the presiding judge in terms of his decision but, in turn, looked  to the parents. Black LJ who gave the leading judgement, noted that at various stages in proceedings that both parents had been criticised for their intransigence. It was said that they had, ‘behaved in ways that were destructive to the prospect of contact’. Some of the father’s behaviour had been considered to be, ‘startlingly unwise’, and there had been a lack of effective support for direct contact by the mother. The guardian, who had been appointed to represent the children, had described the conduct of both parents as, ‘inexcusable’.

The President of the Family Division hearing the appeal noted the following: ‘There are many things which they ought to do, that children may not want to do, or even refuse to do. Going to the dentist, going to visit some boring elderly relative, going to school, doing homework or sitting an examination, the list is endless. The parents’ job, exercising all their parental skills, techniques and stratagems – which may include use of both the carrot and the stick and, in the case of other child, reason and argument - , is to get the child to do what he does not want to do. The child’s refusal cannot, as such, be a justification for parental failure is clear: after all, children whose education or health is prejudiced by parental shortcomings may be taken away from their parents and put into public care’.  Both parents were asked to look at their future and their future relationship with their children. They were given the following guidance by Court of Appeal judges.

‘It is simply too dreadful to imagine a future where both parents are estranged from their daughters, or they are cut off from their grandchildren, and where they are left with nothing but regret and remorse. It is, as I said to them in the court, the kind of outcome which haunts me in cases like this. It is a future which does not bear thinking about. It is not yet too late, perhaps this pill can be the catalyst for change’

The court is clear from the recent decision and the guidance offered by the Court of Appeal that parents who have parental responsibility have a duty to their children to ensure that their children have contact with the absent parent, unless there is good reason for no contact such as physical, emotional or sexual abuse, and those allegations are proven.