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Child contact arrangements at Christmas

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Christmas is considered by many as a special time of the year, dedicated to spending quality time with family and friends. As this period approaches, it is important to think about where and how children will spend the festive season. With that in mind, how do you agree on arrangements for children during Christmas?

1. Plan in advance

We very commonly see parents in the weeks running up to festive period attempting to arrange Christmas arrangements far too late. This can result in added stress, pressure and frustrations between separated parents.

It is absolutely vital that any proposals for Christmas contact are made far enough in advance to allow enough time for consideration and appropriate negotiations. Any discussions between separated parents must be within the child’s best interests and they should take place away from the children.

2. Discussions around the arrangements

Unless there is a significant safety issue which would prevent it, discussions between separated parents should take place appropriately, whether that is face to face or via other means such as text message or email. It may be helpful to put any agreed arrangements in writing to avoid any confusion or disputes.

It is crucial to ensure that these communications remain entirely child focused with the shared aim of finalising the arrangements. It is also important to consider that as your child gets older, their wishes and feelings may be subject to change.

This may have a natural impact on who the child wishes to spend time with or where they would like to spend their festive period. By taking a child focused approach to any discussions or arrangements, you can appropriately factor in your child’s wants and needs.

By having these discussions in advance, it allows for separated parents to take stock of what is being suggested or offered, as well as being afforded the time to seek legal advice or take any further steps if appropriate to do so.

3. Stick to the arrangements

If you have been able to come to an agreement about the arrangements over the Christmas period, it is really important that you stick to what is agreed. Sticking to the arrangements not only provides stability and consistency for the child but also demonstrates a responsibility to the other parent that the arrangements are important to you.

After the Christmas period, you may wish to reflect on what has and hasn't worked in respect of the arrangements. You may wish to vary the arrangements for the following Christmas and it is important that you have open discussions about this when the need arises. The earlier that this can take place, the better!

We haven’t been able to agree on the arrangements. What should I do next?

Unfortunately not all separated parents are able to come to an agreement so easily following such discussions. It is important to know that there are other options that you can explore.

1. Mediation

The first step may be to try mediation. Mediation is the process by which families can negotiate about future arrangements for children with the help of a neutral third party. The third party, the mediator, does not tell the parties what to do or what they should or should not agree to, but can help separated parents to reach their own agreements amicably.

Mediation is a step that is taken outside of the court arena and will allow you as a separated parent to have more control over what decisions are made in relation to your children. The process of mediation is both a quicker and cheaper way of resolving disputes around children’s arrangements than applying to the court.

Anyone applying to the courts for assistance in resolving disputes about children will be required to attend mediation. There are some exceptions to this and a solicitor will be able to advise you on this.

If mediation doesn’t help you come to an agreement, or it is not an appropriate avenue to explore, there are further things that can be considered.

2. Making an application to the family court

A parent should only be bringing disputes over children into the court arena where absolutely necessary. The view of the family court is clear that, wherever possible, parents should be sorting these arrangements out between themselves.

An application can be made to the family court for a judge to decide upon the precise Christmas arrangements. You are able to make this application yourself or with the help of a lawyer if you are the child's mother, father or if you have parental responsibility for the child.

The court may make what is known as a child arrangements order which will stipulate who will have contact with the child, when and where this shall take place. This can be specifically in respect of the Christmas arrangements if that is what the parties are unable to agree upon.

The court will want to hear from both parties, usually by way of a court statement, which details their proposals for contact over the Christmas period. CAFCASS (The Child and Family Court Advisory and Support Service) may carry out certain checks prior to the first court hearing to investigate whether there are any welfare or safeguarding issues that the court should be aware of.

CAFCASS may provide a written report to the court to detail their investigations, as well as to make any recommendations on the contact proposals once the appointed advisor has spoken to both parties.

The court may not agree with the arrangements that you or the other parent has set out. The court, in making any decision, will have regard to the welfare checklist. The court will always take a child focused approach when decision making and the children's welfare will be paramount.

The court’s decision will be legally binding and it is expected that both parents will adhere to the court order. 

It is important to note that such an application to the court at this point is very unlikely to be heard prior to the Christmas period unless there are safety or welfare concerns for a child. Any urgent application should be made without delay.

How can Stephensons help?

We understand that having these discussions as separated parents can be difficult. Should you require the assistance of a solicitor, please speak to a member of the team on 0161 696 6193. Our children law solicitors have extensive experience in dealing with any child access or child contact situation and will deal with your case in a professional and sensitive manner.

By Danielle Leigh (graduate paralegal)

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