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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.

The Road Ahead: The Family Court and Covid 19 explains that the Family Court was not coping with its workload pre-covid. Initial predictions in the early part of the year that services may return to normal within a few months have now evaporated and whilst contested hearings were being adjourned, in the hope of a swift return to normality, the reality is now that they must be dealt with. This means that for a sustained period the Family Court will face dealing with a high volume of cases, access to radically reduced resources and sub optimal court settings.

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

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.

A recent report published by the Family Solutions Group entitled ‘What about me?’ addressed the need for ‘fresh and focused attention’ to improve the experiences of and opportunities for separating families away from the Family Court. Commenting upon the report, Sir Andrew McFarlane, President of the Family Division, said that it should be a matter of concern for society to achieve better co-parenting between separated couples. He noted that where there are no issues of domestic violence or child protection, parents should be encouraged to make arrangements for their own child rather than applying to the Court to resolve the issues.

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 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.

Both mediation and family arbitration can take place safely on a remote basis. With the use of video conferencing platforms, it is possible for parties to come together for discussions and to have their own breakout rooms with the arbitrator or mediator shuttling in between as required.

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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