Top 10 tips to help navigate child law disputes
It can be difficult enough for parents who are in a relationship to reach agreement on all of the decisions that relate to their children. When parents are separated or divorced this can add a further layer of complexity and emotion, both immediately following separation and as the needs of the child change over time. Child arrangements can be tricky. Court proceedings can be distressing (not only for the parents but also the child involved) and expensive and should usually only be considered where all other routes for resolution have been explored. Based on our family law experience, we have put together our top 10 tips which might help to assist in trying to resolve these disputes and without the need for court proceedings where possible:
- The starting point for any decision should be what is in the best interest of your child. What this might look like will vary depending upon the child concerned, potentially their wishes and feelings and the circumstances involved. It can help whenever there is conflict in relation to a child to take a step back and think about exactly why you say that your preferred approach is in your child’s best interests and what detriment (if any) the child will face from the other parent’s viewpoint. This should then be balanced against the difficulties that court proceedings might cause.
- Where there are repeated issues, we would advise that it is useful to keep a diary of what has happened and when. If it is necessary to issue proceedings in due course, this can be used as an easy ready-reference. If there are abusive emails or text messages, keep a paper copy of these as you may need to evidence them in the future
- Where possible, try and keep the channels of communication open. Talking directly can help to avoid matters being misinterpreted but it is not appropriate in all cases. Where there is a lack of trust or allegations have been made, written communication can be a better approach in order to keep a formal record of what has been discussed. Sometimes it can be useful to pass a notebook between parents as the child moves between you to set out any updates, such as health conditions, points about homework or any other issues that may impact upon the child.
- Discuss major decisions with your co-parent. If there is a major decision planned, such as the introduction of a new partner to a child or a house move within the local area, it is best if this is discussed with the co-parent in advance so that this can be as positive an experience as possible for the child and the other parent can answer any questions that the child may raise appropriately. Any moves that will impact upon the other parent’s relationship with the child and/or schooling should normally be agreed with the other parent in advance in any event.
- Think very carefully about what you say to the other parent. It is not uncommon for text messages, emails, letters and social media posts to be produced as evidence during family law proceedings. Whilst it can be easy to react in the moment (particularly in the face of provocation), this never helps in the long term and you should avoid saying anything that you would not be comfortable with a judge reading. We usually advise that you should not refer at all to any disputes or make negative comments about the other parent generally on social media. The court does not like to see social media used in this way by parents and this could negatively impact upon your case.
- Plan ahead as far as possible. It can be useful to try and agree things like holidays and special days (such as religious festivals, birthdays or mothers/father’s days) as early as possible in the year. Whilst this does remove flexibility, it allows everyone to make plans. When a child is due to start or change schools it is important to consider all of the alternatives significantly advance. Make sure that you know when open evenings are to take place, local authority school applications need to be made by and when any entrance examinations are to be held so that these dates are not missed. Consider if there are any additional requirements that need to be put into place by the chosen school (for instance religious requirements – some schools require evidence of attendance at places of worship for a significant period of time). Be mindful of the fact that it can take several months, and in some cases years for matters to progress through the courts. Where there is a dispute, make sure that there is enough time for matters to be properly resolved.
- Make child arrangements realistic around the commitments that both you and your child have. For instance, it is not advisable to push for contact to start at 5pm if this means that you will be frequently late as this can be manipulated or misinterpreted. Whilst a child’s relationship with their parents should be prioritised, think carefully about how the child will perceive it if they are asked to miss events such as parties or taking part in activities that they enjoy. Think about whether there is a way that you could facilitate these activities whilst still enjoying time with them.
- So far as appropriate, try to be actively involved in the important aspects about your child’s life. It can help to have an interest and involvement in what is happening at school. If relations are good between parents then both can attend events like parents evening together. In more difficult circumstances, most schools will usually accommodate separate parent’s evenings. Try to avoid involving the school within any dispute. Schools do not like being put in the middle this way and will not consider it to be in the best interests of the child. Try and share some of the aspects of your child’s life that are important to them. For instance, if they attend a sporting club, is it possible for you to take them or pick them up at least some of the time. Can you be there to watch some of their matches or competitions?
- Where a child is reluctant to see you, try to get to the root cause of this in a sensitive and child appropriate way. Sometimes the reason for the reluctance can be easily resolved, such as one parent not being able to do the child’s hair in the morning to their liking (some children’s hairdressers offer parent’s simple hairstyling lessons) or not having their chosen teddies or toys with them. Parental alienation is sadly common so be wary of what the children may have heard or seen that could impact upon their relationship with you. It is not uncommon for older children to view their parent’s social media posts which might bring up more complicated issues or emotions (such as seeing new partners or comparing the lifestyle that one parent has against the other). Try to avoid posts that might cause upset if a child saw (or was shown) it.
- Think carefully about taking action against the other parent. Avoid provocative reactions. We have known several occasions where a very small reduction to the level of child maintenance has resulted in another parent causing difficulties in relation to spending time with that parent. Think whether the action is taking is worth the potential difficulties that it could cause in relation to the child.
Where there is a dispute, an independent third party can help to break the deadlock. The instruction of solicitors does not need to be adversarial and can help to take some of the emotion that exists between parties out of the scenario and focus decision making. The issuing of court proceedings should be the last resort and we often resolve issues in relation to children without the need to refer matters to court.