What is a specific issue order?

Family|November 21st 2016

We’ve all heard of the ‘child arrangements order’, which replaced residence and contact orders, but the family court can also make other types of orders relating to children.

Anyone who read the excellent judgment of Mr Justice Peter Jackson in the sad case of the 14 year old girl dying from cancer who wished to have her body cryogenically preserved will have noticed that one of the orders that he made was a ‘specific issue order’. The specific issue that the order related to was the making of arrangements during the girl’s lifetime for the preservation of her body after death. Despite the fact that the father was not in complete agreement, Mr Justice Jackson made a specific issue order permitting the mother to continue to make those arrangements.

As the name suggests, a specific issue order is an order dealing with a specific issue that has arisen in relation to a child, whereby the court makes a decision upon that issue, usually when the parents are unable to reach agreement as to the issue. The law doesn’t define what amounts to a ‘specific issue’ but, as we will see, it is generally a non-trivial issue relating to the child or the child’s upbringing, which needs to be resolved for the benefit of the child.

It should be noted that the court may not use its powers to make a specific issue order with a view to achieving a result which could be achieved by making a child arrangements order. In other words, a specific issue order is not directly to do with issues of residence and contact, and may not be used as a ‘back-door’ way to getting something that is actually to do with residence or contact.

A specific issue order will, unless discharged by the court, normally last until the child reaches the age of sixteen, although where there are exceptional circumstances the court may make an order that will last until the child reaches the age of eighteen.

We’ve already seen one example of an issue dealt with by a specific issue order, but obviously that was a very unusual, if not unique, issue. What are the kinds of issues that are more commonly dealt with by specific issue orders?

There aren’t an awful lot of reported decisions relating to specific issue orders, but here are a few of the issues that the courts have been asked to adjudicate upon in recent years:

  • Changing the child’s name: Just a couple of months ago there was a case reported in which the court granted an application by the mother for a specific issue order permitting a change of her children’s surname, in circumstances where the father had been imprisoned for serious sexual offences.
  • Temporary removal of the child from the jurisdiction, for example to take them on holiday: There have been a few reported cases on this, such as a case in 2014 in which the High Court made a specific issue order allowing a father to take his children on a visit to Jordan.
  • The child’s education: A relatively common scenario is where the parents are unable to agree what school their child should attend. This is quite often linked to the issue of religious education. For example in 2013 a court was asked to deal with a mother’s application for a specific issue order about the choice of secondary schools for the four youngest children of a Jewish family.
  • Whether the child should have the MMR vaccine: This was the difficult issue that the court had to determine in the 2013 case F v F, in which the father wanted the child to be vaccinated but the mother did not. Mrs Justice Theis ordered that the children should have the vaccination

As can be seen, the specific issue order can deal with a wide range of issues. It is a useful way to resolve impasses between separated parents who cannot agree upon important decisions for their children.

Photo by The Tire Zoo via Flicker

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