Campaigning for children: Child and Family Law policy development and law reform
Submitting InstitutionUniversity of Sussex
Unit of AssessmentLaw
Summary Impact TypeSocietal
Research Subject Area(s)
Psychology and Cognitive Sciences: Psychology
Law and Legal Studies: Law
Summary of the impact
Research investigating the long-term impact of child contact arrangements
in the context of parental separation under the existing law has rapidly
and demonstrably impacted upon Parliamentary discussion, policy setting
and recommendations by the Children's Commissioner, upon the strategies of
cross-disciplinary groups of family justice practitioners who deal with
children's issues, and in judicial practice, such that prior presumptions
in relation to child contact have altered. Prof. Jane Fortin of the
University of Sussex carried out a Nuffield-funded empirical research
project between 2010 and 2012, the report of the project, describing the
research and providing detailed recommendations, was subsequently
published as a book and later dealt with in journal publications.
Prof. Jane Fortin has been a member of Sussex Law School Faculty since
2007 and the preliminary, foundational ideas for the research that
concerns this case study evolved from 2006 to 2009 [see Section 3, R1, R2,
R3]. Supported by co-researchers from the University of Oxford, Jane
Fortin acted as Principal Investigator for a study entitled `Taking a
longer view of contact: the perspectives of young adults who experienced
parental separation in their youth' [R4], supported by a Nuffield
Foundation award of £153,772 for the period July 2010-December 2011.
Publication of the research findings facilitated impact by their being
taken up in parliamentary debate and by their influence on practitioners
and the judiciary, whose work is involved in advising on, advocating and
deciding child contact issues. The research study drew on the findings of
an earlier pilot study led by Fortin [R2] which had demonstrated that
research with young adults on this aspect of parental breakdown produced
particularly rich research data.
The Nuffield project examined the experience of children dealing with
parental separation. Traditionally, separation has resulted in one parent
becoming the primary carer whilst the other becomes the contact parent. At
the time of the research project's conception there was intense political
debate around the question of promoting greater involvement of
non-resident parents in children's lives. The research gap addressed by
the project comprised a comprehensive investigation of the long-term
impact of contact arrangements under the existing law.
The research had two principal objectives. First, to give voice to a
group of people hitherto largely ignored, i.e. the young adults who had
been the subject of contact arrangements during their childhood. Second,
to investigate whether the young adults' evaluations of contact were
associated with any particular characteristics of contact, their
involvement in contact decisions, and the nature and extent of contact
problems (including safety concerns and exposure to parental conflict).
The study consisted of two parts:
- First, a telephone survey of young adults in England and Wales who
experienced the break-up of their parents' relationship before they
reached the age of 16. Participants were screened and then interviewed
using the Quancept Computer Assisted Telephone Interviewing system.
- The second stage of the study consisted of in-depth, face-to-face
interviews with a subgroup of young adults. These were selected on the
basis of two criteria: (i) that parental separation had occurred after
implementation of the Children Act 1989 (because this substantially
changed the law) and (ii) that they had had some contact with the
Key findings from the project included:
- Children are independent social actors. Children's own involvement in
decisions about contact is associated with positive contact experiences.
Children are not brainwashed into resisting contact with non-resident
parents but are able to form clear and mature views as to their own
- In principle, a continuing relationship with both parents is vitally
important. This emerged as a view, at least in principle, held even by
those with bad experiences of contact. However, it was also clear that
no contact was seen as better than bad contact.
- The ingredients of successful contact: continuous contact; a good
pre-separation relationship with the non-resident parent; efforts made
by the non-resident parent to maintain an enjoyable contact; and the
commitment demonstrated by the non-resident parent.
- The relative unimportance of the amount or type of contact; there is
no blueprint for contact which will work for all, or the majority of,
- Resident parents are more likely to facilitate than to undermine
The research highlighted significant implications for courts and
policy-makers. In particular, it identified a number of risks that would
be associated with proposed legislation seeking to embed a presumption
about the involvement of both parents in the life of the child. Fortin's
research strongly suggested that courts should retain unfettered
discretions about the welfare of the child and should be able to focus on
References to the research
Publications pre-dating the Nuffield investigation but building
foundations for the research:
R1 Fortin, J. (2009) Children's Rights and the Developing Law.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
R2 Fortin, J., Ritchie, C. and Buchanan, A. (2006) `Young adults'
perceptions of court-ordered contact', Child and Family Law Quarterly,
R3 Fortin, J., (2009) `Children's right to know their origins: too
far, too fast?', Child and Family Law Quarterly, 21(3): 336-55: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1943591.
Outputs can be supplied by the HEI on request.
Details of the impact
The `Longer view of contact' project has received widespread attention,
especially in the context of proposed legislative reform. In a letter of
January 2013, the directors of the Nuffield Foundation noted that:
This has been a particularly thorough and carefully presented piece of
research, which addresses an important gap by giving a voice to young
people affected by parental separation, and is particularly timely given
... the government's intention to legislate on shared parenting. We are
particularly pleased to see that you have ensured the study has been
picked up by relevant interest groups, and in particular by the Justice
Select Committee and the Family Justice Board' [see Section 5, C1].
Examples of impact include:
The research findings have influenced (by rebutting `populist'
assumptions concerning the quality of contact of parents in differing
circumstances etc.) the current campaign opposing the present government's
controversial aim to amend the Children Act 1989 (a matter which is
on-going) through the introduction of a legislative presumption favouring
shared parenting arrangements. Notably, the House of Commons Justice
Committee, which opposes this legislation [C2] - see (2012) HC 739, Pre-Legislative
Scrutiny of the Children and Families Bill, Fourth Report of Session
2012-13, TSO - quoted from Fortin's findings as supporting its own
opposition (at paragraphs 163-4). The influence of Fortin's debate is also
expressly acknowledged in correspondence with the University by Sir James
Munby, the President of the Family Division within the Judiciary [C3].
This impact is evidenced by the debates in Parliament about the Children
and Families Bill. The Nuffield project and the University of Sussex's
involvement in it is explicitly referenced (Col 96) by Elfyn Llywd, Plaid
Cymru's Westminster Parliamentary Group leader [C2].
Fortin's Nuffield research was explicitly relied upon by The Children's
Commissioner in (27 February 2013) A Child Rights Impact Assessment of
the Children and Families Bill, 41-2 [C4] in arguing against the
proposed changes in the Bill where it was stated:
Recent qualitative research [full title of Fortin's research cited in a
footnote to this paragraph] with young adults about their experience of
contact when children suggests that problems with contact are rarely the
result of obstruction by resident parents, and highlights a range of
different factors which underpin successful contact. It demonstrates the
importance of basing decisions about contact on the specific
circumstances of each child, allowing for arrangements to be
flexible and evolve. Critically, the research shows that children were
often very clear about their own needs, that their involvement in
decision-making is associated with positive contact experiences, and that,
if children resist contact with non-resident parents, it is often for
their own reasons and related to the behaviour of the non-resident parent.
Caroline Willow, former National Coordinator of the Children's Rights
Alliance for England, noted that the research influenced debates on
`shared parenting' during the reading of the Bill, in particular eliciting
comments from Liberal Democrat for Home Affairs Baroness Hamwee and
Baroness Butler-Sloss [C6].
In a letter to the University from a leading practitioner in the field,
Alistair MacDonald QC, it is stated, among other things, `It is plain that
the research conducted by Professor Fortin has already had, and will
continue to have, a positive impact on policy and practice in the field of
law relating to children' [C5].
In an email to the University, Sir James Munby, President of the Family
Division of the Judiciary, states, among other things, that Professor
Fortin's research described herein `was of great practical importance to
judges and legal and other practitioners in the family justice system'
and, in the context of this impact audience, Sir James Munby also says the
research's message `has been absorbed by everyone and has influenced many
people's thinking' [C3].
Sources to corroborate the impact
C1 Letter from the Nuffield Foundation, dated January 2012.
C2 HC 739, Pre-Legislative Scrutiny of the Children and
Families Bill, Fourth Report of Session 2012-13, TSO, December 2012.
C3 Letter from The Right Honourable Sir James Munby, President of
the Family Division, dated September 2013.
C4 The Children's Commissioner (2013) A Child Rights Impact
Assessment of Parts 1-3 of the Children and Families Bill (HC Bill
131) 27 February.
C5 Letter from Alistair MacDonald QC, dated August 2013.
C6 Letter from Carolyne, former National Coordinator of the
Children's Rights Alliance for England (CRAE), dated August 2013.