Separated parents urged to settle disputes over Christmas child arrangements

Parents should try to finalise arrangements for spending time with their children over the festive period as quickly as possible.

High numbers of dependent children are caught up in family breakdowns each year, and in the months leading up to Christmas, the family courts get very busy trying to deal with disputes between separated parents about how the children should divide their time over the festive period.

To put the matter in perspective there are 2.9 million lone parent families, accounting for 14.9% of families in the UK in 2019 (Office of National Statistics (ONS) bulletin: Families and Households in the UK: 2019). The last 20 years, since 1999, has seen a significant increase (14.5%) of lone parent families, with 22.3% of all dependent children in UK now living with lone parents.

Courts will already be fully booked and unable to accommodate anything other than the most urgent court hearings before the Christmas period. We advise separated parents to try to finalise arrangements for spending time with their children over the festive period as constructively, and as quickly, as possible.

Court cut backs have also contributed to the difficulties in finding time to resolve these cases. The Family Court is struggling to cope as a result of the cuts, and coupled with a lack of legal aid for the majority of Family Court matters, increasing numbers of people having to navigate a complex system without specialist legal advice which can lead to understandable errors and further delays.

In any event, the courts increasingly see joint parenting decisions as the best way for parents to bring up their children, the view being that parents need to take a constructive approach to resolve their issues in a sensible way that suits the children, rather than the adults.

Therefore serious consideration should be given to family law mediators who are trained to help separated couples resolve disputes, including financial settlements and arrangements for any children. A mediator is impartial, and meets the parties together to assist them in identifying those issues that are not yet agreed upon and help them to try and reach agreement. Many parties enter into mediation and pursue it to the conclusion of a satisfactory settlement in respect of child arrangements.

However, irrespective of the choice to mediate it is usually advisable for each parent to retain their own solicitors to provide independent advice following sessions. Independent legal advice is important, particularly, as mediation is not a suitable forum for every dispute that arises and parents may need to consider carefully how they wish to proceed. Weightmans can provide help when you are considering or going through a family mediation.

Another option to resolve a matter quickly could be family arbitration, engaging a privately funded arbitrator instead of a state funded Judge, in order to get to a settlement. One of the most attractive benefits of arbitration is that the process can move at a faster pace than Family Court proceedings.

Every dispute is different and finding the best way to resolve them requires expert advice. When assessing whether mediation or arbitration might be appropriate, early expert family law advice is invaluable.

With only a few weeks before Christmas seeking early legal advice to assist with this difficult issue can help to ensure an enjoyable, conflict free, holiday for children and parents alike. 

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