Child contact rights after a split
Relationship breakdown is tough and when child arrangements are involved it is especially complicated. If you’re a parent who has separated or divorced and you are not able to see your children at all, or not as often as you would like, it can be devastating. You might feel that you are being prevented from maintaining a healthy relationship with your children and excluded from decisions involving them. It’s common for parents to disagree about child arrangements - in just the last quarter of 2018, the Ministry of Justice received 12,000 child arrangement cases.
Children have a right to a relationship with both parents and it’s important to listen to their wishes before making decisions. Witnessing conflict between parents, especially when children feel they are the focus, has a negative impact on children’s mental wellbeing. They may start to feel insecure and might blame themselves for the problems. That’s why it is vital that disagreements are resolved as amicably and efficiently as possible.
Agreeing child arrangements amicably
If at all possible, it is best for the whole family if you and your ex-partner can sit down together and work out child arrangements. If you have joint parental responsibility for your children then you both have an equal right to make decisions about their upbringing and care.
All mothers and most fathers hold parental responsibility. If the children were born after December 2003 and the father is named on the birth certificate, he has parental responsibility. Fathers with children born before that date hold parental responsibility if they were married to the mother at the time of the child’s birth.
Together with your ex-partner, you will need to agree:
- How much time the children will spend with each of you
- Whether or not you can both take the children away on holiday
- Where the children will live
- Whether they will stay in the same school
- How they will travel to and from school
- How you will care for the children during school holidays
If you don’t hold parental responsibility, then child arrangements are the mother’s decision. Should you disagree with her then you could contact your family lawyer for advice.
What happens if we cannot agree child arrangements?
Mediation can be arranged by your lawyer. A mediator will help you to agree child arrangements as amicably as possible. If you eventually do need to attend court, you will only be permitted a full court hearing if you can prove you have both attended a Mediation Information and Assessment Meeting (MIAM) first.
Mediators are experienced and approachable, offering an unbiased approach to your difficulties. They will not tell either of you what to do, but will help you to reach an agreement yourselves by improving communication between you.
The benefits of mediation are that:
- You stay in control of the decisions made in relation to your children rather than placing decisions in the hands of the court
- It’s less stressful than resolving disputes in court
- Arrangements can be reviewed and changed with the agreement of both of you without having to reapply to court
- It is faster and cheaper than court proceedings
- The improved communication between you and your ex-partner will make it easier for you to make decisions together in future
2. Separated Parents Information Programme (SPIP)
The Separated Parents Information Programme (SPIP) is a course to help separated parents to clearly understand what their children need most from them, and to learn practical ways to manage conflict and stressful situations. Separated couples do not attend the same course, but it’s important that both of you go on the programme if you choose this route.
The course can help you if:
- Ongoing conflict means you have problems focusing on your children’s needs
- The emotions you feel as a result of the separation are affecting your ability to communicate with your children
- You would like to improve communication
- You are considering mediation as an option
SPIP is free of charge in some areas and it is available across the country. The programme is delivered on behalf of CAFCASS (Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service). You can attend SPIP at the same time as mediation. If your case does eventually go to court, you may be directed to attend SPIP by the court.
3. Child Arrangements Order
If you are still unable to agree child arrangements, then you will need to apply to the court for a Child Arrangements Order which will specify where your children will live, when your children will spend time with each of you, and when and what other types of contact will take place (Skype calls, for example).
You must show the court that you have tried to agree child arrangements between yourselves first by proving that you’ve attended a Mediation Information and Assessment Meeting (MIAM). There are exceptions, such as if there’s been domestic abuse.
Between four and six weeks after you’ve applied, the court will set a date for a First Hearing Dispute Resolution Appointment (FHDRA). At this appointment you might be directed to attend further mediation and/or SPIP.
Before the first hearing, an officer from CAFCASS (who has a social work background) will visit your family. They will talk to you, your ex-partner and your children in order to find out:
- Whether children are at risk of suffering harm or have already suffered harm
- Children’s feelings and wishes
- Children’s emotional, physical and educational needs
- The most likely effect that any change of circumstances determined by the court will have upon each child
- Each child’s age, background, and sex
- The capability of both parents to meet the children’s needs based upon the Children Act 1989
The CAFCASS officer will also carry out criminal record and social service checks on you and your ex-partner. Sometimes they contact other family members, teachers and health workers to gather information. Their focus is your children’s wellbeing – nothing more.
The court will make a decision about child arrangements largely based on the CAFCASS officer’s report.
Child maintenance payments to the primary carer
Parents have a legal responsibility to provide financially for children under 16, or under 20 if they’re in approved education or training. The primary carer – the person who lives with the children and manages their day-to-day care – receives child maintenance. If you are the paying parent and you share residential care, then the amount you must pay will be reduced.
There are four different ways you could arrange maintenance:
- Family-based arrangement: You and your ex-partner manage maintenance between yourselves.
- Direct pay: The Child Maintenance Service (CMS) calculates payments, but you and your ex-partner arrange how the money will be paid.
- Collect and pay: The CMS calculates payments and transfers the money from one parent to the other.
- Court-ordered arrangement: There are very few circumstances in which you or your ex-partner can apply directly to the court for child maintenance. If you are in dispute, you would normally go through the CMS. However, in more complex situations you may apply to court. For example, if there are step-children or disabled children involved, or if the paying parent has an income of over £156,000 a year, the court may decide that they should pay ‘top up’ child maintenance above the amount calculated by the CMS.
Seek advice from a family solicitor
QualitySolicitors are dedicated to helping families to achieve the best possible outcomes for their children. We understand that making child arrangements following separation or divorce can be complex and emotionally fraught.
Our mediation service can help you and your partner to avoid court by reaching an amicable agreement. All our mediators are accredited by the Family Mediation Council and they are experienced and approachable.
Whatever stage you have reached with your child arrangements, we will guide you. Talk to us today on 08082747557.
 Ministry of Justice, Guide to Family Court Statistics, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/789800/Guide_to_Family_Court_Statistics.pdf
 Family Court of Australia, Parental conflict and its effect on children, http://www.familycourt.gov.au/wps/wcm/connect/fcoaweb/reports-and-publications/publications/parenting/parental-conflict-and-its-effect-on-children
 CAFCASS, Separated Parents Information Programme (SPIP), https://www.cafcass.gov.uk/grown-ups/parents-and-carers/divorce-and-separation/separated-parents-information-programme/
 Gov.uk, Making child arrangements if you divorce or separate, https://www.gov.uk/looking-after-children-divorce/types-of-court-order
 Gov.uk, Going to court, https://helpwithchildarrangements.service.justice.gov.uk/going-to-court#c_video_player
 Gov.uk, Making a child maintenance arrangement, https://www.gov.uk/making-child-maintenance-arrangement
 The Money Advice Service, How to arrange child maintenance, https://www.moneyadviceservice.org.uk/en/articles/how-to-arrange-child-maintenance