When a couple separate, there can sometimes be disputes over where the child will live or how much contact they should have with the other parent.
This is where a family law solicitor can be useful. In the first instance, a simple letter can break the ice and set out your wishes to maintain contact with your children. Your solicitor can also advise you on your rights and the appropriateness of any conditions on the contact and initiate negotiations for change.
Alternatively, a mediator can provide a neutral setting for discussion with the parents and could be an opportunity to review the arrangements for seeing your child and overcome any obstacles. You must attempt mediation prior to initiating court proceedings unless mediation wouldn't be appropriate in those circumstances, for example domestic abuse.
As a last resort you might consider a court application for a Child Arrangements Order. A Child Arrangements Order is a court order that sets out who is responsible for the care of a child. Anyone with Parental Responsibility can apply for a Child Arrangement Order. This could be a blood parent or step parent. If you don't have Parental Responsibility of the child, you'll need to request permission from the Court to make a separate application for Parental Responsibility.
When considering who the child should live with or how the child's time shall be spent between the parents the Court will consider what is in the child's best interest. A CAFCASS officer will be appointed to the case and they will spend time with the family in order to prepare reports and provide recommendations to the court.
The court will consider the wishes and feelings of the child, if they are mature enough, and what effect any change in circumstances may have on the child's wellbeing. The Court will take into account all of the circumstances of the individual case.
There may be a number of court hearings the parents will be expected to attend to progress the matter towards a final Child Arrangements Order.
A final Child Arrangements Order should set out the following:
- With whom the child shall live
- How often the child should have contact with the other parent
- How and where this contact will take place
For example, they may spend weeknights in the family home and weekends with their mother/father. It can also set out other types of contact such as through phone calls, video calls, cards and letters etc.
The court generally promote that both parents should have contact with the child. The court attempt to consider the time spent with each parent as shared arrangements even if the time spent isn't strictly equal.
The Child Arrangements Order is legally binding, and if a parent breaches it, they will be in contempt of court which could mean fines, enforcement orders, unpaid work in the community and even imprisonment (although this is extremely rare).
The Order will stay in place until the child is 16, or in some exceptional cases, until 18. If you reconcile with your ex-partner and live with one another for a period of 6 months then the Order will cease.
Most orders include terms for the parents to agree to changes to the arrangements by agreement. These are however usually one-off arrangements and if significant changes to the order are required then an application to the court to vary the order should be made to ensure that the terms can be enforced. A similar procedure to the initial application will be followed. Cafcass will consider how the arrangements have worked thus far and to make further recommendations to the court in this respect.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.