Understanding Contact Disputes

Report to Federal Attorney-General’s Department, Australian Government, 2009

Sydney Law School Research Paper No. 10/138

50 Pages Posted: 8 Dec 2010

See all articles by Judith Cashmore

Judith Cashmore

The University of Sydney Law School

Patrick Parkinson

University of Queensland

Date Written: December 2010


Ongoing high conflict disputes between parents about the arrangements for children after parental separation are costly for parents and for the court system, and damaging to children. This study involved 80 parents (45 families) who attended a contact orders program in Sydney Australia following disputes over contact; 20 parents participated in an in-depth interview. The key issue in the disputes for these parents was concern about the child’s safety and well-being in the care of the other parent, with over half the children involved under the age of 5 at separation. A second issue was children’s resistance to contact, especially on overnight stays and where the child was not close to that parent. Other issues such as the presence of new partners and disputes over money inflamed the dispute but were not the key reported reasons for the dispute.

It is clear from this study that there is quite a diverse range of parents who are caught up in such disputes, and there are variations also in the triggers for conflict. Four particular lessons for policy emerge. The first is that it should not be thought that all these disputes are intractable. Many of the parents were very thoughtful about their situation and would advise others to learn from the mistakes that they made. There were lower levels of violence among the overall sample in this cohort than might have been expected based upon other studies (eg. Johnston et al. 2005), although the proportions were higher in the interview sample. These parents should not all be treated as intransigent or unwilling to accept help and support.

Secondly, traditional modes of dispute resolution were unlikely to help these parents – they had gone down that route and it had not resolved the conflicts. The underlying issues of attitudes to each other, and to new partners, had to be addressed therapeutically.

Thirdly, the study shows that some parents need a definitive resolution that will call the dispute to a halt. There were parents in this study where the disputes had been going on for years and showed little sign of resolution. In high conflict situations, it may be best for the children that one party be told they cannot bring the case back to court again without leave. For some parents in this study, only near bankruptcy and exhaustion brought the dispute to an end.

Finally, the study shows the importance of dealing with the ending of relationships, allowing people to be angry, to grieve and to blame. That is hard in a future-focused system. However, the best way to secure peace for the future may be in some cases, to deal fully with the past.

Keywords: parental separation, conflict, concerns re parenting capacity, repartnering, young children

JEL Classification: K10, K30

Suggested Citation

Cashmore, Judith and Parkinson, Patrick, Understanding Contact Disputes (December 2010). Report to Federal Attorney-General’s Department, Australian Government, 2009, Sydney Law School Research Paper No. 10/138, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1721927

Judith Cashmore (Contact Author)

The University of Sydney Law School ( email )

New Law Building, F10
The University of Sydney
Sydney, NSW 2006

Patrick Parkinson

University of Queensland ( email )

Forgan Smith Building
The University of Queensland
St Lucia, Queensland 4072

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