Disputes Involving Child Arrangements

It can be extremely difficult to come to an agreement on what happens to children when parents separate or divorce.

A variety of disputes can arise regarding where a child or children live and how much time they should spend with a non-resident parent.

What happens when there is a parental dispute over child arrangements?

If parents cannot come to an agreement on the arrangements for a child, they may seek the assistance of the family court. This court considers what’s in the best interests of the child, and the child’s welfare is the court’s paramount consideration when making any decisions.

When an application is lodged with the Family Court, the court sends the application to the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (CAFCASS), who then undertake safeguarding checks and prepare a short report for the court.

This report is considered by the court at the First Hearing Dispute Resolution Appointment (FHDRA) to see if the parties are able to agree the arrangements for the child. If so, then final orders can be made. If not, then the court will order further evidence.  

The evidence needed will depend on the issues involved. For example, the court may require the parties to each file a statement or undertake drug or alcohol tests or psychological assessments. The court may also appoint a Cafcass officer to prepare a full report about the child’s welfare, which will include the child’s wishes and feelings if the child is of an age (where it is appropriate to include their wishes and feelings).

The case will then proceed to a Dispute Resolution Appointment (DRA), but if it is still not possible to agree the arrangements, then the case will proceed to a final hearing when the court will determine the outcome for the child and make a final order which both parents must comply with.

At VM Family Law, we can help to support families through disputes with children, offering expert advice on what the most appropriate next steps are and what the court is likely to order whilst always protecting the child throughout.

What are Child Arrangements Orders?

A Child Arrangements Order (CAO) is an order of the court. It dictates who (which parent) the child spends time with, and with whom they live.

These types of orders were previously known as Residence Orders and Contact Orders. Many years ago these orders were referred to as Custody and Access.

Parents may use the services of a mediator or solicitor to reach an agreement. If that is unsuccessful, parents may choose to make an Application to court for a CAO and the court will determine the arrangements for the child/children.

Get in touch with our team of family law solicitors today to support you with Child Arrangement Orders.

Child arrangements and domestic abuse

If the court is concerned about domestic abuse, this will affect where a child should live and how much time they spend with a parent.

When making child arrangements, the court’s primary concern is the welfare and safety of the child in question. Under certain circumstances, it may impose conditions regarding contact with a parent or indeed prevent the child from having any contact at all with a parent if the court decides that to do so would place the child at risk of significant harm.

Specific Issue Orders

The court may issue a Specific Issue Order to determine important decisions, such as which school the child attends or what should be done if any medical treatments are required, or regarding whether a child’s name can be changed or they can move abroad.

Prohibited Steps Orders

The court may also issue a Prohibited Steps Order (PSO). A PSO is to prevent a parent from carrying out specific actions in relation to their child, without the court’s permission or the written consent of the other parent or anyone else who shares parental responsibility for the child.

Restricted actions may include taking the child out of the country, changing their name, or making other important decisions regarding their upbringing. 

Types of disputes involving children

There are a variety of disputes that can arise involving children. These may include:

  • Questions regarding where the child will live
  • Educational or medical treatment needs
  • Disagreements over the frequency or amount of contact with a non-resident parent
  • Concerns about the child’s religious upbringing
  • A disagreement regarding the child’s name

Causes of disputes involving children

There are a variety of reasons why disputes may arise involving children:

  • Separation and divorce – This is one of the most common causes of disputes.
  • Child custody – One party may want sole custody of a child, while the other party wishes to have joint custody.
  • Parent alienation – This occurs when one parent attempts to turn a child against the other parent.
  • Domestic violence – When one parent is abusive towards a child or the other parent, urgent action is necessary.

What powers does a Child Arrangement Order have?

A Child Arrangement Order is a Court Order which details the arrangements for a child/children. These orders can be made with the consent of both parents if the arrangements are agreed, or will be imposed by the court if the parents cannot agree to the arrangements.

A CAO may specify the following:

  • With whom a child should live
  • How much time they should spend with each parent
  • Conditions can be attached to these orders such as who is responsible for the safe collection and return of the child.

A child may travel abroad with the parent who has a Live with Child Arrangement Order in respect of that child. This trip may last for up to 4 weeks. If a parent does not have this type of order, then they require the permission of the other parent/all those who have parental responsibility for the child before they can take the child out of England and Wales.   

If the consent is not forthcoming, then they will need to apply to court for a Specific Issue Order.

Can a Child Arrangement Order be overturned?

A Child Arrangement Order may be overturned if there is a significant change in the circumstances since the order was made.

 Here are a few examples of significant changes in circumstances:

  • If one of the parents is relocating to a different city or another country.
  • If a parent becomes disabled or seriously ill.
  • If a child develops a serious medical condition that makes a change in living or contact arrangements necessary.
  • If a child is at risk of harm.
  • If a child wants the arrangements to change and they are of an age to understand the implications of such a change.

If a parent wants to have a CAO overturned, it requires an application to the court.

How long do child arrangement orders last?

A Child Arrangement Order lasts until the child reaches the age of 16 but in exceptional circumstances they can last until a child reaches the age of 18.  It can be varied or discharged before this if there is a significant change in circumstances.

Support with child arrangement disputes

If you become involved in a dispute over the arrangements for your child and you are not able to resolve these directly with the other parent then you should consider whether mediation would be appropriate and it is always advisable to also seek legal advice.

If you are still not able to agree the arrangements either via mediation or via solicitors, then you can make an application to the Family Court, but all other avenues of resolving the dispute should have been explored first.  

Parents may seek legal representation and support during the court process, either through a solicitor or a family law barrister or both.

Can you challenge a CAO?

You can challenge a CAO, but you may have to get permission to do so and you would need to have grounds to challenge the order. You cannot just apply to appeal a Court Order just because you do not like the decision the court has made.  

There are also rules and timescales which apply if you wish to lodge an appeal and it is therefore important to seek urgent legal advice.

What is a breach of a Child Arrangement Order?

A Child Arrangement Order is breached when one of the parties to the order fails to follow the terms of the Order. If this happens, then the other party can apply to Court to enforce the Order.  

If the breach is admitted or if the Court decides that the parent has breached the order, then the court has a wide range of sanctions and these include:

  • Ordering the parent in breach to pay a fine
  • Making an order for financial compensation
  • Requiring the person in breach to undertake unpaid work
  • Committing the person in breach to prison
  • Varying the order
  • Requiring the parents to attend the Separated Parents Information Programme

Our goal is to help our clients solve their family legal matters as smoothly as possible.

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