Our Guide to Child Contact;-
It is a child’s right to have contact with both parents, unless it is in the child’s best interests not to do so because they are at severe risk of harm. It is important that parents try to arrange contact dependent upon the age of the child, the practical arrangements and who the child lives with. For example, a baby’s contact session might be a couple of hours on a weekend, perhaps even in the mother’s home. Suitable contact for older children or teenagers might be alternate weekends, staying overnight, and/or with other contact taking place during the week. If the other parent lives far away, then telephone contact or internet video-phone contact, such as MSN or Skype could be agreed.
You also need to think about what the arrangements might be for annual holidays, such as the Christmas and Easter breaks, Bank Holidays, birthdays and family holidays.
If you are having problems with contact, then you should discuss your case initially with our Family Solicitor, Stacey Phoenix. Usually, we would write to the other parent with your proposals for contact, asking that the parent agrees or lets us know what their counter proposals might be. We would then try to negotiate on your behalf.
You might be referred for mediation, whereby we would arrange for a specialist mediation service to contact you and the other party to arrange mediation sessions. This option is voluntary and it involves meetings with a trained independent third party, who helps the parents negotiate, without the need to go to Court. It is an inexpensive way of helping the parties come to an agreement. This should be your first choice if there is a possibility that you can come to an agreement without the stress and complications of court proceedings. There are however circumstances where mediation is not appropriate, such as if there have been incidents of domestic violence between the parties.
If you are on Benefits, then you may qualify for free mediation sessions. The same applies if you are on a low income.
Our chosen mediation service is called the “Families Talking Tees Valley Mediation Service”, who are situated in central Middlesbrough; however, we do have other mediation contacts and we would appoint the most appropriate mediator for you, dependent on where you live and what transport is available to you.
If this does not work out, then we could discuss making an application to the Court to decide the issue.
What is a Contact Order?
A Contact Order requires the person with whom the child lives to allow the child to visit, stay with or have contact with the person named in the Contact Order, which continues until the child is 16 years old. The Court can also make Orders in respect of children over 16, in exceptional circumstances.
Some Orders are very specific as to what the arrangements are and these are known as “Defined Contact Orders”. They specify dates, times and arrangements and can be preferable when the relationship between the parties is strained. Other Contact Orders are not defined and leave the detailed arrangements to be made between the parties directly.
Some Contact Orders specify that contact has to be supervised by a third party or that contact must be “indirect” i.e. by sending letters or cards to be read to the child.
Who can apply for a Contact Order?
Contact Orders are not just granted to parents of the child; they can also be obtained for contact between the child and siblings, or with wider family members, such as grandparents.
How does the Court decide who should get residence and/or contact?
When making decisions about a child, the Court must consider the law set out in The Children Act 1989 (C89), which states that the child’s welfare must be the Court’s “paramount consideration”. In simple terms, the Court must put the child’s welfare above everything else.
The Court must consider all the circumstances of the case, particularly having regard to;-
1. The child’s wishes and feelings. Obviously this depends upon the child’s age and how much they are able to understand. Generally speaking, the older the child is, the more attention the Court will pay to their wishes and feelings.
2. The child’s physical, emotional and educational needs. This includes the day to day practical needs, such as housing and food, as well as love and affection.
3. The likely effect upon the child of a change in circumstances. This is of particular concern in residence issues, as the Court will want to disrupt the child as little as possible and to ensure that the child’s life stays the same, as much as possible.
4. The child’s age, sex, background and other relevant characteristics. This might be any cultural or religious needs, or any special needs or disabilities which might affect the child.
5. The risk of harm to the child. This is the risk of the child suffering and/or having suffered in the past, any physical, emotional or sexual abuse. It also includes the child being witness or at risk of being witness to any domestic violence within the home.
6. The parents’ capabilities in meeting the child’s needs. These capabilities might be impaired if one party has never looked after a child before, or if there is a history of alcohol or drug misuse.
7. The range of powers available to the Court. The Court might decide to make a number of different Orders or perhaps no Order at all, depending upon the circumstances of the case. The Court will only make an order if it is in the best interests of the child or if there is a dispute. The Court can make other Orders, such as a Prohibited Steps Order (which limits certain parental rights and duties, such as preventing a parent from taking the child out of the country) or a Specific Issue Order (which specifies action that a person is to take, such as to send the child to a particular school or for the child to live at a specific address).
What happens at Court first?
The Court proceedings usually take place in the Family Proceedings Court, which forms part of the Magistrates Court, although some cases are directed to the County Court. The Court may ask both parties to attend a meeting with a CAFCASS (the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service) Officer, who is an independent third party. The CAFCASS Officer will see if it is possible for you both to negotiate, which may avoid the need for the Court to make an Order.
What if I’m frightened of my former partner/spouse?
Such a meeting might not be appropriate for you, particularly if you are frightened of your former partner/spouse because you have suffered domestic violence. If this is the case, it is very important that you tell your Family Solicitor, so that the Court can be made aware of this. In such circumstances, you could be seen by the CAFCASS Officer on your own.
The Court can order CAFCASS to prepare a Welfare Report, to help the Court consider;-
1. Any domestic violence suffered by you or the other party, or the child. This includes any domestic violence that the child may have witnessed, rather than suffered.
2. The harm that the child may be at risk of suffering if an Order for contact is made in favour of either you or your former partner/spouse.
3. Whether it will be safe for you/your former partner or spouse and your child to have contact where there have been issues of domestic violence.
4. The wishes and feelings of the child on issues of residence and/or contact.
At this stage, you should make sure that you tell the CAFCASS Officer if there have been any organisations involved as a result of domestic abuse, such as the Police, your GP or a domestic violence organisation, such as Women’s Aid or My Sister’s Place.
How does the Court decide what should happen?
When making a decision, the Court will decide what other evidence might be needed in order to make a decision about residence and/or contact. Such decisions are known as “Directions”. For example, both parents might be asked to give statements as to their views, or ask the CAFCASS Officer to make a report and recommendations about what should happen. In making the report, the CAFCASS Officer reads the Court file and the parties’ statements, meets both parents and the child (separately) and any other professionals necessary. Such professionals might be Social Services, or a Child Psychologist.
It is very important that you cooperate with the CAFCASS Officer, because their report and recommendations carry a lot of weight with the Court when it makes a decision.
At the Final Hearing, the Judge listens to evidence from each parent (through their solicitor or barrister), the CAFCASS Officer and any other expert. Having heard all the evidence, the Judge will make a decision on where the child should live and what level of contact should be granted to the other party.
Paul J Watson Solicitor have a specialist Family Law Solicitor, Stacey Phoenix, who can speak to you for free, either by telephone or in an appointment. If you would like to speak to our Family Solicitor, please call 01642 293427. Alternatively, fill in the Contact Form , providing your personal details and an outline of your case, and we will contact you.
We offer legal aid for those who qualify and reasonable private fee paying rates for those who do not.
Our Family Solicitor will talk to you about your case, assessing your circumstances and providing sympathetic and caring advice.
The advice given in this Guide is general, basic advice only. The law involving residence is complex and you should seek legal advice regarding such issues.