When parents separate, deciding how to move forward, organize contact with each party can be difficult. It is one of the most emotional and challenging aspects of a relationship breakdown and often the cause of much conflict. Unfortunately this discord can continue for many years if matters are not handled properly.
Tips for making the process easier:
- It is a good idea to decide how contact arrangements will work as quickly as possible.
- Always keep in mind the children’s needs. This might mean being flexible about arrangements.
- Try to organize a routine that suits both parents.
- Never use contact as a weapon to hurt the other parent.
- Communicate regularly with the other parent.
What if parents are still unable to concur?
One of the first steps parents should take if they are struggling to reach agreement regarding their children is to attend mediation.
According to Lord Justice Thorpe “There is no case, however conflicted, which is not potentially open to successful mediation.”
Mediation offers both parents the opportunity for meaningful dialogue in a neutral space. Mediators are impartial and cannot offer recommendations; however, they can provide both parties with guidance and information where necessary. Participating in mediation is voluntary, but courts will expect parents to have at least attempted to resolve issues in this way before court proceedings are instigated.
What happens if mediation fails?
There are some cases where disputes become so entrenched that mediation is unsuccessful. As a very last resort, the matter might need to be referred to court. Under these circumstances it is advisable to seek legal advice from a solicitor experienced in family law. Cases regarding child contact can be confusing and a solicitor can help clarify the parent’s legal position.
Recently new rules have been established regarding access to legal aid for contact cases. With more restrictions in place many parents are now in the position of having to represent themselves in court. However, if any issue is contested, it is worthwhile instructing a barrister to help negotiate this aspect.
What happens at court?
Both parents will be given the chance to present their point of view. The Judge will ask that parents come to an agreement regarding arrangements. If agreement is still not forthcoming, the Judge will make a decision regarding how contact will take place. This can be in the form of a recommendation or an order.
If the outcome is an order, the resident parent and in some cases, both parents, will be legally bound to comply with it. An order is usually only granted when the Judge can see no other option, typically as a result of a complete impasse between the parties. This is because it removes any element of flexibility for both parents. However, it also reduces scope for further argument and eliminates the need for in-depth contact between hostile parties. Non-compliance is considered contempt of court and can result in an enforcement and/or variation order for the defaulting parent. In cases of non-compliance, it is again wise to seek appropriate legal counsel.