For any couple with children, whether married or unmarried, unable to agree arrangements for them and embroiled in court proceedings under the Children Act 1989, the chances are that at an early stage in the proceedings the Court will order both parents to attend what is known as a ‘SPIP’: a separated parents information programme.
This is a course which aims to help parents understand what their children need most from them and which encourages them to learn how to communicate more effectively with each other so as to better manage conflict and disagreement.
It is widely accepted that young children who witness rows between parents they love equally may suffer emotional harm and find it difficult to form stable relationships in future.
It is also widely acknowledged that one of the root causes of problems between separated parents in agreeing arrangements for any children is communication.
In recognition of this the SPIP was launched some time ago and it has since become very popular, so much so that the courts strongly promote the option. The Court can order both parties to attend the programme in the course of proceedings under the Children Act and it will be notified by the course provider if either party has fails to attend.
In my own private law practice I have seen a significant increase in the number of times SPIPS are ordered and a vigorous extolment by the court of the virtues and benefits of the course to the parties involved.
There is no charge to the SPIP when Cafcass has recommended, within the context of court proceedings, that the parties should attend one.
What is the course?
The programme encourages parents to take steps for themselves which may include developing agreements that do not need court intervention. It may give parents ideas and signpost ways in which they can access help outside the Court. The parties are expected to make use of these where possible. If this leads to agreed arrangements that are safe and beneficial for the children the Court will encourage and help this process. The majority of parents attending these courses do find them helpful and certainly thought-provoking.
The parents do not attend the course together but individually and separately. The course is delivered in mixed groups of parents in either two two-hour sessions or one four-hour session.
A number of exercises are undertaken to help develop a better understanding of how children cope with the separation of their parents and the common pitfalls that parents often unwittingly fall into and which can have an adverse effect on their offspring. A thought-provoking video is shown which vividly demonstrates the confusion and upset children can experience when they are exposed to anger and rows between their parents.
The SPIP is ideal in the following situations:
- When the parents have difficulty focusing on their children’s needs as a result of their conflict with each other.
- When the parents’ feelings and reactions following separation prevent them communicating effectively about the necessary arrangements for the children.
- When parents simply want to improve their communication with each other or they are thinking about mediation.
Typically, the course will include exercises on working as separated parents to further the best interests of children. You will see a DVD that follows a family over a six month period and the difficulties that are commonly faced by both the children and the parents.
Work will be done on improving communication, with the participants being invited to think about various prepared scenarios from the other parent’s or the child’s points of view. Help will also be given in trying to better manage reactions to stressful situations.
The parents will be helped to understand the emotional effects of separation, and the options for moving forward.
The SPIP is a welcome and very useful tool to help parents better co-parent their children after separation. It is being used increasingly by the family courts who recognise the practical help it offers parents and this is a very welcome development. After all, the two people best placed to make decisions about their children are their parents, even if they have separated – not the courts!