Associate solicitor Rebecca Patience and Legal Apprentice Grace McGarvey from Harrison Drury’s divorce and family law team outline the general procedures when undertaking child arrangement proceedings for separating parents.
When parents separate or divorce, there will be a period of adjustment while they get used to co-parenting after the end of the relationship. A child’s needs will always be the first and most important consideration when dealing with their living and contact arrangements.
For most parents, these arrangements can be agreed through discussions together or other forms of dispute resolution, such as mediation.
Unfortunately, for some separating parents, these agreements cannot be reached amicably and an application to court is necessary. Court proceedings relating to children are governed by The Children Act 1989.
In most cases, before issuing an application, the court will need to see evidence that the parties have attended a Mediation Information and Assessment Meeting (a MIAM). You do not have to compel the other party to attend the MIAM with you. Usually, each party attends a MIAM session separately. Only where a mediator believes joint mediation sessions will be of benefit will the other party be invited to attend a session.
Issuing an application for child arrangements
The application for a Child Arrangements Order is made on a form C100. The person making the application (the Applicant) must serve the paperwork on the other party (the Respondent) at least 14 days before the first court hearing date.
The Respondent should acknowledge receipt of the documents and fill in their answer form (form C7) within 14 days of service.
Safeguarding considerations and enquiries
Ahead of the first hearing, the court will ask the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (CAFCASS) to conduct basic safeguarding enquiries with the Police and Social Services. CAFCASS will also speak to both parties, to ascertain their respective positions. CAFCASS will write a letter to the court setting out their initial thoughts and recommendations.
Setting a timetable for the case for child arrangements
The first hearing is used to set a timetable for the case. To give time for safeguarding checks, the first hearing will normally take place within 8 to 12 weeks of the issue of proceedings.
At the first hearing the court will ascertain both parties’ positions but will not hear any evidence. If everything can be agreed between the parties, the court can make a final order, to record the agreement reached and the case will be concluded.
If matters cannot be completely resolved at the first hearing the court will make directions to progress the case. These directions may include ordering disclosure of police records, disclosure of GP records or ordering a report to be undertaken by CAFCASS (a section 7 report).
This report may include CAFCASS talking to the child(ren) about their wishes and feelings and what they would like to happen.
The Dispute Resolution Appointment
The next hearing is the Dispute Resolution Appointment (DRA). At this hearing the court should have all the information requested at the previous directions hearing. The parties will be given time to discuss the issues and to try and negotiate an agreement. If agreement is reached, a final order will be made by the court. If agreement cannot be reached, then a final hearing date will be set. The court will usually direct the parties to file and serve written statements of evidence at this stage.
The final hearing
At a final hearing, parties will be required to give evidence at the hearing, which will usually be submitted by way of a written statement, as well as oral evidence to the court. Any experts in the case, such as CAFCASS, may also be called to give evidence.
After the court has heard all the evidence a final decision will be made. At all times the court’s paramount concern will be the welfare of the children.
Once a final order is reached it is a legally binding court order and must be followed.
This is usually the end of the matter however in some circumstances, if the order is not being complied with, a party can make an application to the court for enforcement.
Making the right arrangements for a child after a divorce or separation is crucial and parents need to focus on putting the child’s needs before their own. If you would like to arrange an initial consultation with a member of our divorce and family law team, please contact Harrison Drury on 01772 258321.