Published: 30 January 2017
Area of Law: Pre-Nuptial & Post-Nuptial Agreements
Taking the heat and financial sting out of split-family arrangements
An estimated 42 per cent of marriages now end in divorce and, as a result, disputes around child custody are a growing problem. Parents are turning their attention to the year ahead, and disagreements over who gets the kids for a special event, such as a birthday or holiday, are commonplace. For families that don’t know what their options are, attempting to resolve such issues can not only cause added stress for the children involved, it can carry a hefty financial sting too, if handled in the wrong way.
Caroline Elliott, family law partner, shares her advice on avoiding child custody conflict and how parents can reach practical compromises to ensure children aren’t caught in the cross-fire...
Take action early
When trying to reach an agreement over child custody for a particular day or event, many parents leave it until the last minute to seek external support. It’s not uncommon for parents to contact the court a week before the special event only to be told it’s too short notice because, unfortunately, the courts are extremely overstretched. With this in mind, it’s crucial that parents take action as far in advance as possible if they are hoping to spend time with their children. For any cases involving children, the last thing you want is to be pressured by deadlines.
Fighting a children case through the courts may not be the best option for all parents, as the costs can quickly amount up to as much as £15,000. Up until 1st April 2013, people on low incomes were eligible for Legal Aid to cover the fees associated with all family disputes, including child contact and residence disputes. However, under new rules, Legal Aid is only accessible for people whose situation involves issues such as domestic abuse, child protection and child abduction matters. As a result of these changes, many of those who couldn’t afford lawyers in the past are now left without any access to legal services at all. Parents should explore all of their options and, if appropriate, think about settling the issue out of court.
A different approach
It’s important for parents to know that there are other ways they can seek to resolve their disputes, such as mediation, collaborative practice and family arbitration, which can happen very quickly with a series of meetings in quick succession, providing that both parents agree.
Between April and June 2016, 65 per cent of all mediation cases begun were for children cases and, over the last year, 62 per cent of all mediation outcomes involved successful agreements.
Mediation is a process in which separated couples sit down with a neutral third party to resolve the issues in their dispute, and it is set up for people’s convenience. Even if the big event is only a few weeks away, parents could still secure an appointment and very often you can create quite a good outcome by taking this route.
In mediation, people often stop and think more rationally and, as a mediator, I’ve seen some quite remarkable turn arounds in terms of people’s attitudes.
The downside to this option is that it’s not a court settlement and cannot be enforced, but it does provide people with an agreement they can refer to, and that in itself helps them to focus if things go wrong again.
Often agreements that people reach themselves are more likely to stand the test of time than those that have been imposed on them by a court, and people are usually much more willing to stick to something they’ve entered into reasonably willingly.
The mediator will set up a meeting at a convenient time for both parents and, in most cases, this could take place as soon as the same week of the initial contact. This is a much quicker route than going through a court and, even with a number of meetings, the cost of mediation is likely to be no more than 25-30 per cent of the cost of court proceedings.
Keep it positive
In order for mediation to work, both parents have to want to go through the process, because it’s entirely voluntary. One parent will often take the initial step of getting in touch with a mediator, who will then contact the other person to see if they are willing to proceed. If so, both parents are invited to have an initial discussion with the mediator about how it works and the various rules, such as being respectful to each other, maintaining a positive attitude and keeping focused on what they are trying to achieve.
Whichever route parents decide to take to resolve their children dispute, in or out of court, it’s crucial that they avoid getting caught up in their own disagreements and losing sight of the fact that their children’s best interests must be paramount.