Separating parents have long expressed frustration with certain aspects of the family justice system, with fathers’ rights groups in particular defiant in their stance against the apparent bias in favour of mothers when it comes to addressing the ongoing residence of the children. In a bid to tackle this issue, the Government has proposed several changes to the family justice system by way of the Children and Families Bill (“the Bill”).
One amendment put forward by the Bill is that Residence Orders and Contact Orders will cease to be, and a single concept Child Arrangement Order will take their place. The reality of Residence Orders and Contact Orders in their current form is that one tends to be seen as a “victory” over the other, adding to the animosity between conflicted parents.
The proposal follows from the Government’s response to the 2011 Family Justice Review, where it announced its commitment to promoting the importance of both parents remaining responsible for the care of their children. As a result, the concept of “shared parenting” has overshadowed the remainder of the legislative changes to become the buzzword(s) of the Bill.
A public consultation on the notion of shared parenting ran between June and September 2012 and the Government concluded that the starting point in any matter before Court should be that both parents should be involved in a child’s life (presuming of course that welfare is not an issue).
The concept of “shared parenting” to many evokes the presumption of a 50/50 division of residence and contact between parents, which is reinforced by a Child Arrangement Order. However, this is simply not the case and a starting point of 50/50 residence is in fact discouraged in the Family Justice Review.
It is crucial to remember that the Court will always give the most weight to the interests of the child when considering childcare arrangements. Therefore, whilst those parents who have less contact following the breakdown of a relationship are likely to feel let down by the justice system, those feelings are ultimately not the Court’s concern. The paramount consideration remains the child’s best interests and, more often than not, the Court deems that those interests are unlikely to be best met by a straight down the middle 50/50 split of residence.
That said, the importance of maintaining a relationship with both parents, taking into account all aspects of parental responsibility, is very much at the forefront of the changes proposed by the Bill. Contrary to much public opinion, this notion is nothing new to the Courts and does in fact form a major consideration in deciding almost all of the cases which appear before them.
What does the Children and Families Bill mean for you?
It has long been understood by the Courts and related agencies that more often than not, an ongoing relationship with both parents and close members of both extended families is likely to be beneficial to a child’s well-being following parental separation. It is also understood however that the quality of those relationships, rather than the quantity, is likely to be the most crucial factor in fostering and developing family relationships to the child’s greatest benefit.
Proponents of “equal access” for parents are likely to be disappointed by the Bill which does not, on that view, go far enough.
However, it will be open to the Courts to test the question of what shared parenting amounts to exactly and it may yet be the case that the Bill goes quite some way in leveling the playing field in respect of parents’ involvement in their children’s lives.