The welfare of the child has always been the fundamental consideration for courts dealing with child arrangements following a couple’s separation. The welfare checklist set out in S8 of the Children Act 1989 provides statutory guidance that requires certain factors to be considered. Amongst other things, the wishes and feelings of the child and the child’s needs are considered, so that the most appropriate arrangement is reached. Due to the subjective requirements of each child, extreme care must be taken to ensure that the specific needs of the child are met.
Consideration must be given to where the child should live and how often they should see or speak to each parent. Until recently, these matters were addressed through residence and contact orders respectively; however, these were replaced with the all-encompassing child arrangement orders in April 2014. The purpose of the amendment was to shift the focus away from the name of the order and towards the content. Too often, parents were being side-tracked and, instead of focusing on their child’s best interests, they were becoming fixated on becoming the parent with residence. By removing the concept of a ‘winner’ and a ‘loser’, it was hoped that the focus would return to the child.
A further change to the law came into force on 22 October 2014, whereby S1 Children Act 1989 was amended to include the presumption that it is in the best interests of the child for both parents to be involved in the child’s life, unless evidence to the contrary is shown. Explaining the legislative changes, Mr Justice Hughes stated that, “No parent should be excluded from their child’s life for no good reason.”
But when has the law ever allowed this to happen? Surely it goes without saying that as long as it is safe to do so, then parental involvement will be encouraged? Judges have been dealing with parental disputes for many years and reported cases show that even when a parent’s conduct has been questionable some sort of contact has been maintained, as long as there is no risk to the child.
“As a result, one could be forgiven for thinking that the amendment brings nothing new to the table,” says Katie McCann, Head of Family Law for Kuits. “However, what it does do is shift both parent’s involvement from being a consideration to a presumption that is not to be strayed from without good reason.” As Mr Justice Hughes goes on to explain, “This is not about giving parents new ‘rights’ but making clear… that the family court will presume that each parent will play a role in the future life of their children.”
It is important to clarify that the changes to the Children Act do not create a presumption of equal parenting. Although this idea was considered initially when the above provisions were drafted, it did not come into fruition, and rightly so. A presumption of a 50:50 split in relation to parenting would not compliment the welfare principle and would be a potentially dangerous move in some cases. The risks attached to such a presumption are highlighted by Australian family law and the devastating case of 4-year-old Darcy Freeman, who died at the hands of her father in 2009. He had been given access to his children under the Australian shared parenting law, despite concerns from his ex-wife as to the safety of this. This tragic case emphasises that a presumption of shared parenting can easily jeopardise the safety of a child, without relevant checks and balances being in place.
“The UK law appears to tread with caution by expressing that the presumed involvement may be direct or indirect,” says McCann. “Although the importance of child-parent contact is acknowledged, the law is not prepared to endanger the child and therefore indirect contact may be appropriate where there is the potential of harm through direct contact. Although this approach appears to be balanced and sensible, the motives behind the recent amendments can be questioned. There is room to argue that the introduction of child arrangement orders and the insertion of the presumption of parental involvement are both for the benefit of the parent, as opposed to the child.
“As stated above, the involvement presumption has always existed and recording it in statute simply reassures parents that, unless there is a good reason to the contrary, they will remain involved in their child’s life. The introduction of child arrangement orders does nothing more than rebrand contact and residence orders by placing them in a slightly more modern and less stigmatising packaging. Massaging the ego of the parent that does not gain the label of a ‘residence order’ appears to be the main objective. By focusing on accommodating the parents’ feelings, it can be argued that the child’s welfare becomes less of a priority and this is unacceptable.”
The government do not accept that the focus has been shifted away from the child and explain that, on the contrary, the purpose of the changes is to ensure such focus remains intact. They claim that the aim of the legislative amendments is to promote a greater understanding of how the courts reach their decisions in cases relating to parental disputes. The hope is that, in doing so, parents will be persuaded to take a less rigid approach, secure in the knowledge that their involvement is desired.
“It is still early days and one cannot be sure of the effects, if any, of the legislative changes,” concludes McCann. “However, if the government’s outcomes are achieved, it is hoped that parents will stop trying to win the ‘custodial war.’ In turn, this will ensure that focus is placed on accommodating the child’s best interests and this, of course, is the ultimate goal.”