After you’ve practised as a family lawyer for a few years you get to know the classic rigid positions that parents often take in the course of contested disputes over arrangements for their children. The post that I wrote here yesterday was an example of the classic case of the mother who wouldn’t let go. Another classic position is that of the father who tries to bully the mother into agreeing arrangements that are clearly not in the best interests of the children.
All family lawyers have seen these and a number of other classic positions adopted by parents who are unwilling or unable to take a sensible, constructive approach to resolving children disputes. Of course, lawyers, judges and others try to advise them of the error of their ways. In particular, such parents are often told to “put their children first”. However, this advice is often considered by the parents to be superfluous, as they genuinely believe that they are putting their children first.
Accordingly, I think that the advice to such parents to put their children first needs a little elaboration. I would suggest that the following six points, which I will address to the parents directly, should help:
- Remember, above all, that the last thing your children want is conflict between their parents. It is therefore essential that every effort be made to resolve the matter by agreement, whether directly with the other parent, through solicitors, or with the assistance of a third party, such as a mediator.
- Remember also that this is about what is best for your children, not what is best for you. It is about their welfare, not your rights.
- Forget everything that you want to get out of the dispute. I know that this is easier said than done, but you need to start with a clean sheet, so put to one side all of your proposals and demands. You may later find that some of those proposals do coincide with what is best for the children, but others may not.
- Ask yourself honestly: is the other party really a bad parent? Very few people are. OK, a new parent may require a little time to acquire parenting skills (few people are taught them), but subject to that most parents are good parents, even if their parenting ideas don’t exactly coincide with yours. There is no such thing as the ‘ideal parent’, and that includes you!
- Read, or remind yourself of, the welfare checklist in section 1(3) of the Children Act. Consider which of the items on the checklist are relevant in your case, and how they might affect the outcome. For example, if the children are older and have expressed clear views as to what they want, then is it sensible to go against those wishes? Do the children have any special needs, which one of the parents is better placed to provide for? What about the effect upon the children of any change in their circumstances, such as moving to live in a different area? The factors on the checklist are crucial to how a court would decide the matter.
- Lastly, bearing in mind all of the above, take a genuine step back and try to put yourself in the shoes of a neutral observer, such as a judge. Again, this is a difficult thing to do, but you should make a real effort. What would that neutral observer think was best for your children? I very much doubt that it will be the same as the proposals you previously had in mind.
I appreciate that the above list is not necessarily comprehensive – I’m sure that other family lawyers would wish to add items of their own. However, hopefully these six points will help to point such parents in the right direction so that they can avoid protracted disputes, which can be so damaging to their children.