As a result of the strict criterion that applies to eligibility for legal aid within most private family law proceedings, a greater number of parents are now unable to access assistance with legal costs. As a consequence, there has been an upward trend in the number of parents who are representing themselves in resolving matters in respect of their children.
We believe in advising parents to work together where possible to consider options and to try to find solutions to resolve matters. However, we recognise that resolving issues in respect of children is often challenging and highly emotional for everyone involved including the children. It is therefore sometimes not possible for parents to work together and court proceedings may be considered.
The court process is, for the majority of parents, unfamiliar and help may be needed to understand the process and what is expected of parents considering applying for a court order.
We recently became aware of a very helpful leaflet sent out by the Family Court in Southampton aimed at parents who are considering applying for a court order. The leaflet sets out guidelines as to what the family courts expect from parents.
Guidelines for parents going to court
If you are a parent considering making an application for a court order the court wants you to consider the following first;
- As parents you share the responsibility for your children and have a duty to talk to each other and make every effort to agree about how you bring them up, even when you separate this duty continues.
- Try to agree the arrangements for your child. If talking to each other is difficult, ask for help. Trained mediators can help you talk to each other and find solutions even when things are hard. The court staff can give you details.
- If you can not agree you can ask the court to decide for you. The law says that the court must always put the welfare of your child first. What you want may not be the best thing for your child. The court has to put your child first, however hard that is for the adults.
- Experience suggests that court imposed orders work less well than agreements made between you as parents.
The court therefore expects you to do what is best for your child;
- Encourage your child to have a good relationship with both of you.
- Try to have a good enough relationship with each other as parents, even though you are no longer together as a couple.
- Arrange for you child to send time with each of you.
Remember, the court expects you to do what is best for your child even when you find that difficult;
- It is the law that a child has a right to regular personal contact with both parents unless there is a very good reason to the contrary. Denial of contact is very unusual and in most cases contact will be frequent and substantial.
- The court may deny contact if it is satisfied that your or your child’s safety is at risk.
- Sometimes a parent stops contact because they feel they are not getting enough money from the other parent to look after their child. This is not a reason to stop contact.
- Your child needs to;
- Understand what is happening to their family. It is your job to explain.
- Have a loving, open relationship with both parents. It is your job to encourage this. You may be separating from each other, but your child needs to know that he/she is not being separated from either parent.
- Show love, affection and respect for both parents.
You child should not be made to;
- Blame him/herself for the break up.
- Hear you running down the other parent (or anyone else involved).
- Turn against the other parent because they think that is what you want.
You can help your child;
- Think about how he or she feels about the break up.
- Listen to what your child has to say about how he/she is feeling and about any arrangements that have to be made.
- Try to agree arrangements for your child (including contact) with the other parent.
- Talk to the other parent openly, honestly and respectfully.
- Explain your point of view to the other parent so that you do not misunderstand each other.
- Draw up a plan as to how you will share responsibility for your child.
- When you have different ideas from the other parent, do not talk about it when the children are with you.
If you want to change agreed arrangements (such as where the child lives or goes to school);
- Make sure the other parent agrees.
- If you cannot agree, go to mediation.
- If you still cannot agree, apply to court.
If there is a court order in place;
- You must do what the court order says, even if you do not agree with it. If you want to do something different you have to apply to the court to have the court order varied or discharged.
Although the guidance set out above has been distributed by the Southampton Family Court, the fundamental principles of the guidance applies to all parents and all children without exception.