HOW CAN YOUR BARRISTER HELP YOU AS A LITIGANT IN PERSON
INFORMATION ON CHILD CONTACT ‘SPEND TIME WITH ORDER’
RESPONSIBILITY OF A LITIGANT IN PERSON
Important Note: Please note that this information is not intended to be legal advice. You are advised to seek legal advice.
This information provides an overview of contact with a child, ‘spend time’ with a child when a relationship breaks down, including the different types of contact such as supervised or indirect contact in a family court order.
Contact – Spend time with order
When a relationship breaks down parents will need to reach an agreement on the arrangements for the children. They will need to decide which parent the child will live with and how often the other parent will see the child. The time the non-resident parent spends with the child is known as contact.
Contact between a parent and child can be direct, in other words face-to-face contact, which can include contact during the day or overnight contact.
Contact may also be indirect, such as telephone conversations, e-mails, letters and gifts. There may be a requirement in an order for a named person to pass the communications on to the children and for them to encourage the children to respond. There may also be a requirement for that named person to send school reports, photographs and medical information to the person having indirect contact.
Contact can also be supervised by a named person or in a contact centre.
Who is entitled to contact with a child?
When a child is born, the mother and the father (if married or named on the birth certificate registered after 1 December 2003) automatically have Parental Responsibility.However, Parental Responsibility does not give an automatic right to contact. Contact is the right of the child, not of the parent or any other person.
There is an expectation that where parents have separated, the parent the child lives with allows a reasonable amount of contact with the other parent. Contact does not depend upon whether or not the child’s parents were married.
Contact should only be restricted where this is necessary to protect the interests of the child. In fact, unless proven otherwise, the presumption is that involvement of both parents in the life of the child will be in the child’s best interests.
Usually, parents are able to agree on contact arrangements. If this is not possible, they may seek help from family mediation or, as a last resort, seek a court order.
It is not just parents who can ask for contact with a child. Grandparents, aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters, and anyone who has had a close relationship with a child may ask a parent for contact with the child.
If the child is under the care of Children’s Services, the Local Authority has a duty to promote and encourage contact between the child and “any other relative or person connected with him”. However, it is important to remember that the child’s welfare remains paramount.
You will need to reach an agreement with the other parent on contact times. If you repeatedly take the child without the other parent’s agreement, this is likely to lead to tension and possibly court proceedings.
How much contact can I have?
This is something that both parents should be able to agree on. Parents should afford ‘reasonable’ contact, which will depend on what is in the child’s best interests.
Some parents have contact every day whereas some parents have contact once a year. Reasonable contact will differ from family to family. Some parents share weekends or have the child on alternate weekends and holidays so that both have some extended time with their child.
There is no legal definition as to what would amount to reasonable contact; it will depend on the individual family and their circumstances. If there is a court order relating to contact, this will generally state the days and times that contact should take place and this must be followed.
What is supervised contact?
It is possible to agree that contact should take place at the home of another person, or in the presence of someone else. It is common in these situations for the parents to agree that a grandparent, relative or mutual friend should be present during contact.
It is also possible to agree that contact should take place at a contact centre, for example where there are welfare concerns.
Can I refuse contact?
Contact should only be refused where there is very good reason for doing so, for instance if there is an issue of safety or violence, when contact could be refused. Refusal to allow a parent to have contact is likely to result in an application being made to court. If contact is refused and the non-resident parent takes the case to court, the resident parent will have to explain why contact was restricted. If there is already a court order in place for contact, refusal to allow the contact to take place may amount to contempt of court and possibly further legal action. To avoid this, an application should be made for a variation of the existing Contact Order (now known as a Child Arrangement Order) where there are valid reasons for concern.
Can I force the non-resident parent to have contact?
If a non-resident parent is failing to take up contact granted by a Contact Order (granted prior to 22/4/2014) or a Child Arrangement Order, it is best to think about what is in the child’s best interests before making an application for enforcement of the order. If a Contact Order or Child Arrangement Order is in place, there is the potential to take the matter back to court by making an application to discharge the order. It is not possible to force a non-resident parent to have contact where no Court Order exists.
What can I do during my contact with a child?
As a general rule, a parent can decide where to take the child and how the time will be spent. However, this must be reasonable. It may not be wise to take the child somewhere that the other parent will strongly object to. This could cause arguments and tension and may lead to the other parent seeking legal advice.
If there is a special family occasion, such as a wedding or birthday party, which the non-resident parent would like the child to attend, the resident parent should try to be flexible so the child can attend. Just because contact times have been agreed, does not mean that there cannot be extra contact by agreement.
If a Contact Order (granted prior to 22/4/2014) or a Child Arrangement Order has been granted through the courts, it will often say ‘such other contact as may be agreed between the parties’. Equally, if the child has been invited to a party during contact time, and the child wishes to go, the non-resident parent should try to be flexible.
Parents should reach an agreement on who has contact and how contact will work on birthdays, Christmas and holidays. It is common to take it in turns, one parent having the child for one holiday, and the other parent having the child for the next holiday. It is best to reach an agreement that suits both the parents and the child.
There is no law that stops a parent with Parental Responsibility from taking a child to get a haircut, however ear piercing may be a completely different matter even with parental responsibility.
Changing pre-arranged contact time
Unless there is a Court Order that prevents this, a parent should be able to change contact times by discussion and agreement with the other parent. Once contact times are agreed, neither parent should change them without discussion.
Can I pick my child up from school?
It is best to agree this with the resident parent or parent who usually picks up the child. A parent is likely to be very unhappy if the other parent takes the child from school without prior agreement. It is quite common in such cases, for the school to be told that only one parent has permission to take the child from school. This is an issue that can often cause the resident parent to seek legal advice. The resident parent may decide to start legal proceedings to prevent the non-resident parent from picking the child up from school.
What if my child is not picked up or brought back on time?
The parents should reach an agreement on who should pick up or drop off the child for contact. Most parents tend to share this. The parents should try to stick to the agreed times as closely as possible, but allowances should be made for delays caused by public transport and traffic. If there is a Contact Order (granted prior to 22/4/2014) or a Child Arrangement Order, the order will generally contain the arrangements for handover of the child.
The law treats the issues of maintenance and contact as being completely separate. You are not justified in refusing contact just because the non-resident parent is not paying any maintenance for the child
What if I cannot make a contact session?
If a parent is unable to make a contact session, they should inform the other parent in good time. It is generally disappointing for the child if contact is cancelled at the last moment by either parent.
What should I do if my child refuses contact?
A parent should not react by simply stopping contact. They should try and find out why the child does not want contact any more. It may be that the timing of contact does not suit the child, or there is a worry about the way the child spends time with the non-resident parent. It may also be a reflection of the resident parent’s concerns. A child will often say what they think the parent will want to hear.
Children’s wishes and feelings are very important and should be taken into account in light of their age and understanding. However, generally their wishes and feelings will not ultimately determine what happens. In most cases the courts view contact as being in the best interests of the child, and see both parents’ involvement as a benefit to the child’s welfare, and will only refuse to make an order in exceptional circumstances.
What if my child refuses to have contact even though there is a Court Order (granted prior to 22/4/2014) or a Child Arrangement Order in place?
If the court has made an order for contact, it will expect the resident parent to encourage the child to have contact and ensure that it takes place. However, the child may simply refuse to have contact with the non-resident parent. Where this happens, the resident parent is at risk that they will be held in contempt of court. It is possible that the non-resident parent will take the case to court. If the child regularly refuses contact, there is the potential to apply to court for variation of the order or to have it discharged.
What if a parent does not comply with the order?
(Broken court orders)
A court order is legally binding. Failure to comply with the court order amounts to contempt of court and a person can, as a last resort, be committed to prison for contempt. A parent cannot be held in contempt though simply for failing to take up the contact given.
If parents cannot decide between themselves on contact arrangements, they should try family mediation.
The aim of family mediation is to lessen conflict and to try to resolve disputes amicably. Any parent or other person who wishes to try and resolve contact disputes is required to attempt mediation prior to making an application to court for a Child Arrangement Order.
Mediation takes place in the presence of a neutral 3rd party. The role of the mediator is to assist the parents to communicate with each other and to reach decisions about their child.
Can I get a legally binding arrangement?
If mediation fails, you can apply to court for a Child Arrangement Order. The order makes clear who shall have contact with the child, how often this will be and how long the contact will be for as well as the issue of who is the resident parent.
Going to court can be a stressful and expensive experience. It is a ‘last resort’. Before making an application for an order, parents should seek legal advice. It is possible for a parent to make an application themselves, but there are advantages to being represented.Your barrister can advise you on this.
Can I get legal aid for contact disputes?
Legal aid can help with the costs of mediation if you meet the financial requirements. Legal aid can help with the costs of going to court where there is evidence of domestic abuse or child abuse. For more information on legal aid, seek legal advice.
Chambers of Helen Alexander-Direct Public Access-Family Court Barrister