ASK A FAMILY LAWYER
Each week, Stowe Family Law solicitors answer readers’ questions on different legal issues. This week’s query goes to Jennifer Reddy, a solicitor in our Wilmslow office.
“My ex and I divorced a number of years ago and we agreed regular times when I could see the kids. But she has been making life difficult in recent months, cancelling contact visits at the last minute and making accusations. What are my options?”
Arrangements for children are always an emotive issue and even if contact has gone smoothly for some time, disputes can often arise because there has been a change in one parents’ circumstances – for example a change to the level of child maintenance payable or one parent starting to see a new partner and behaving differently.
In this situation look at what has taken place recently in both your lives – is there an explanation for the change in behaviour? It’s always a good idea to put yourself in the other parents’ shoes, if only for a few minutes, in order to try and understand why they may be acting a certain way. Usually, if you look deep enough, you’ll find that something has happened, perhaps a problem which has not been resolved.
The first step, although it may seem obvious, is to talk to one another. Try to explain how you are feeling in a non-confrontational way. Explain that the children are very important to you both and that you need to work together to ensure that they are happy and healthy. Tell your ex the way it makes you feel when contact doesn’t take place and you don’t see the children or when accusations are made against you. If there is a problem with something you are doing whilst you are with the children it is for the other person to explain their concerns fully so that they can be addressed. You may be able to resolve the situation with nothing more than a sensible conversation – if, for example, the children are always coming home on a Sunday evening hyped up from sweets and chocolate.
If you do have problems over communication or how the children are cared for, it is worthwhile trying to agree a parenting plan. This can be as detailed or basic as you need it to be and it is a good way of focussing your minds on how you would like your children to be raised. The Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass) have a model for creating your own parenting plan online which can be accessed here.
Of course there are some parents who cannot communicate effectively and whose actions you will never be able to understand, no matter how hard you try. Other times you may have completely conflicting views over important issues such as medical treatment, education or the possibility of the primary carer moving away. In those types of cases a more formal course of action is required. Firstly, you will need to consider mediation before you are permitted to approach the courts to resolve your dispute. The mediator will attempt to engage both parents in the mediation process but if one parent will not agree to take part, or if there has been for example domestic violence, a certificate will be issued by the mediator which will still allow you to make an application to the court.
You should think carefully before you enlist the help of the court to resolve your dispute, whether it relates to contact with the children or not Often when you do both parents can become entrenched in their own views and it can become a fairly lengthy process to reach a point where the court can decide what should happen. On the other hand, sometimes approaching the court is the only way to get the other parent to take on board what you believe is best for your children. It is also of course essential to take immediate action if you have serious concerns for the welfare of your children. In those circumstances, you really have no alternative but to apply to the court.
Once your application has been issued, Cafcass will carry out safeguarding checks with the local authority and the Police to ensure there are no safety concerns in relation to either parent. Cafcass will speak to both to ascertain their views, then make recommendations as to the steps required to resolve the issues in the case. Often this can involve asking the court to make a direction for the parents to attend a Separated Parents Information Programme (SPIP) and/or to prepare a welfare or ‘wishes and feelings’ report. Once Cafcass and the parents have completed their work away from the court, another hearing is listed with the aim of reaching an agreement. If that doesn’t work, the court will list a contested hearing where a Judge or lay magistrates will decide the arrangements for the children. At the end of that process you will be sent an order which sets out exactly when the children should be with each parent. This will address any other issues which formed part of your application such as going abroad, education or medical treatment.
If your ex fails to comply with the order you can enforce it and seek redress, such as financial compensation. You may, for example, have booked a holiday for the children which you couldn’t go on because the other parent refused to hand the passports over.
However, in most cases, once the court has made an order, parents do tend to comply, which can be very reassuring after significant periods of dispute.
If you are experiencing problems concerning your children it is imperative that you take expert advice at the earliest opportunity.