When parents split, their children are expected to be at the forefront of their parents’ minds – will they live with one parent or share their time with both? When will they see the other parent? Who has the final say on major decisions, if anyone? It can be a difficult time for parents and children alike.
The law governing breakups where children are involved – The Children Act 1989 – makes it very clear that children should be entitled to a ‘meaningful relationship’ with both parents, but with emotive terms like ‘contact’ and ‘residence’, agreeing what happens to the kids can feel more like a battlefield than an amicable arrangement.
The Children and Family Act 2014
Changes that were introduced in 2014 aimed to make things easier. This removed residence and contact orders and replaced with child arrangement orders. There had been pressure from a number of groups to change the law so that both parents were automatically presumed to have shared parenting rights, but a review in 2011 decided that this might override the rights of the children, which were more important. They did agree that there needed to be some kind of legal statement making it clear that it was important that children had an ongoing relationship with both parents – where possible and safe to do so.
The Children and Family Act 2014 underlined a commitment to quality parental involvement in a child’s life – one important thing to note is that while the involvement is equal, the amount of time spent with the children doesn’t have to be. Life isn’t always as simple as splitting time with the kids 50/50 and the law recognises that. The 2014 laws are now applied when certain types of family law order are made, amended or contested.
Shared Parenting and the Family Justice Bill
Some people believe that the presumption of shared parenting is too vague, and because of this it’s very difficult to enforce orders made by the court. Recently, calls have been made to strengthen the law.
Conservative MP Suella Fernandes has presented a bill to the House of Commons, the
Family Justice Bill, which aims to improve the way that arrangements for the children are made and enforced after a family breakup. Although most parents find a way to work around their own issues and come to amicable agreements about the children, separation and divorce inevitably lead to conflict and there will always be parents who refuse to cooperate.
The courts are notoriously slow to penalise parents who don’t comply with orders concerning the children, and so some people might think they can ignore court orders – a situation that Suella Fernandes (and probably many frustrated parents) would like to see changed.
The Bill is suggesting a draconian ‘three strikes and you’re out’ style approach to parents who won’t stick to court orders and agreements, with the threat of a transfer of residence of the children to the other parent if they continue to breach the order (providing there is no threat to the children from the other parent of course). Other suggestions have been that the parent who won’t play fair has their passport and/or driving licence taken away.
Children come first
Whether this is a step too far remains to be seen, and whatever changes are made will have to be made within the scope of the Children Act 1989, which sets out that matters relating to children must be resolved in their best interests and not those of their warring parents.
It’s a difficult area of law, and an emotive subject. While parents need to feel that they are equal in the eyes of the law, the children will, and must always be put first.