9th Mar 2020

Fixing child arrangements after a split

I’m slightly behind on my Split watching… some unimportant football match messing up the TV schedule this week.  But episode four was worth my wait.

The best quote was hands down this one from Nathan to Hannah, “It’s words, just words…. We’re bloody lawyers – we’re masters of bullshit”.  My husband rolled his eyes at me – ‘there’s your blog’ he said.

Tempting, but no.  I’m going to back to the clients Richie and Fi Hansen.  Leaving aside for a moment the farce that was apparently the roundtable meeting to talk about their three children…what was said about how arrangements for children are made is worth looking at.  It especially resonated with me as I’d had a mediation about children earlier that afternoon and was asked, “What is normal?” and “What are my rights?”

Making arrangements for children

Hannah Defoe, on behalf of her client, says that the purpose of the meeting is to establish a schedule of arrangements for the children.  She says that the proposals Dad has made are unrealistic and unfeasible (alluding to his work commitments).  She says they need to find a calendar that works for everyone and her client (Mum) proposes the children spend every third weekend with their Dad.  Dad’s lawyers say no and that he wants a split share of time with a threat that, if that’s not agreed, they are happy to leave it to a judge to decide.  Hannah immediately points out that a judge will fix dates, leaving neither parent any with any flexibility.  She makes the point again that Dad’s schedule makes the contact he wants unrealistic, but Dad’s lawyers reply that we live in a world where children happily pass between both parents.   She finished the meeting by saying that, as they have reached an impasse, she has no option but to apply for a child arrangements order.  “See you in court” is the familiar, throw-away closing remark.

When it comes to kids, the ideas many people have are very outdated.  Most weeks someone will talk to me about who has ‘custody’ of the children, so I was pleased to see that (once again) The Split was well researched and right up to date with terminology; a child arrangements order.

What does it mean? Pretty much what is says on the tin; an order the court can make as to where a child lives, when a child spends time with each parent and how that contact takes place.

Hannah is right in her advice that a court order is inflexible; it’s a legally binding document that must be followed; it doesn’t adapt as circumstances change or evolve as children grow older.  I caution my clients against court where child arrangements are concerned; a judge is a stranger to this family and judges themselves will say that separated parents are still the best people to make decisions about their children.  It’s about perspective.

And is there a norm?  No not really.  A lot depends on geography, working patterns and (especially with older children) on the children’s own input.  For some families every third weekend does work, perhaps with generous holidays if a parent lives a distance away.  If one parent works a regular shift pattern, then child arrangements may need to take that into account to work well.  If the children are school age, their main free time is weekends and school holidays.  How are sports and activities manged too?

Mediation can help with working out all the child arrangements not just the more limited range of orders a court can make.  It can include the children in the process (when age-appropriate to do so) to have their voice heard.  Parenting Co-ordination can help if, having been to the stress and expense of obtaining a child arrangements order, there are still squabbles.

The fictitious client Fi found it very hard to be without her children that first night they were away and having time with their Dad.  Its probably the hardest bit of divorce and separation - neither parent wants to be away from their children for long periods of time.  But looking at it from the children’s perspective, and giving them the freedom to enjoy a great relationship with both parents, will go a long way to ease pain and reduce misery.

If you’d benefit from help in sorting out child arrangements – give me a call. And please comment and join the conversations on social media if, like me, you want to chat about all things #TheSplit

Sarah Smith is an Eminent Practitioner in Family Law and has been supporting separating couples for over 20 years.

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