Ask the Solicitor: Hill & Company’s Dan Knox on resolving disputes around contact with children

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We’ve partnered with Altrincham law firm Hill & Company to bring you a regular Q&A feature with one of their trusted legal advisors.

You can find the other Q&As in the series here.

This week, Dan Knox looks at relationship breakdown and how to resolve disputes surrounding contact with children.

ALTRINCHAM TODAY: We have seen it reported in the press that some parents are using the pandemic to restrict the contact children enjoy with non-resident parents. Have you seen much of this at Hill and Company?

DAN KNOX, HILL & COMPANY: If a parent is committed to trying to restrict the contact time of their former partner and other parent of their child, there are various strategies they may employ. We have unfortunately had clients who have had the time they enjoy with their children restricted in this way.

Tactics can be subtle and can range from the logistical to the temporary. In any event, our clear message is that children normally need the responsible adults in their lives to provide them with structure and certainty, to tell them when they are to spend time with each of their parents.

AT: If a client has a dispute with their ex-partner about the arrangements for their child, how can this be resolved?

DK: In the first instance, we always encourage our clients to attempt to resolve any disputes amicably with their ex-partner or through solicitor-led correspondence. Whilst we understand that any disputes around the arrangements for children can be particularly difficult to manage, making an application to court can be costly, and it is a long and often emotional process.

Before any application to court, a divorcing couple will be required to see a mediator

AT: If we have tried to resolve the dispute ourselves but have been unable to, what can I do next?

DK: If the dispute remains there are various options available to you if you wish to make an application to court.

You could apply for a Child Arrangements Order which is an order setting out who the child will live with and when they will spend time with their other parent.

Before making any application to court, you will be required to attend mediation, unless you are exempt from having to do so.

AT: What will the court consider if I do submit an application for a Child Arrangements Order?

DK: The court’s paramount consideration is the child’s welfare. The court then has regard to a statutory check list of factors which include:

  • The wishes and feelings of the child in light of their age and understanding;
  • The child’s psychical, emotional and educational needs;
  • The likely effect on the child of any change in circumstances;
  • The child’s age, sex, background and any characteristics of the child which the court considers relevant;
  • Any harm suffered by the child or any risk of suffering harm;
  • The capability of each of the child’s parents and any other person in meeting the child’s needs;
  • The range of powers available to the court.

AT: What will happen once an application has been submitted?

DK: Once an application is issued at court, CAFCASS (Children and Families Court Advisory Support Service) will begin making preliminary enquiries to see if there are any potential safeguarding issues.

This is completely routine and not something to be scared of. Usually, these enquiries will take place by phone and therefore this stage of the process remains unaffected by the changing lockdown restrictions.

CAFCASS will speak to all parties and will subsequently write to the court ahead of the first hearing with their recommendations.

AT: What happens at the first hearing?

DK: In the main, court hearings are currently taking place as remote hearings via video link, telephone, skype, or other remote platforms and it is highly unlikely that you will be required to attend court in person at the present time.

At the first hearing, the court will consider the application and the letter from CAFCASS and seek to resolve issues.

If the matter can be resolved on the day, the court can make an order, however if further information is required, the court will give directions for how they want the case to proceed and be managed, for example by requesting an in-depth report from your appointed CAFCASS Officer. This report could take many weeks to produce.

Depending on the particular issues of your dispute, the Court will adjust their directions accordingly.

Irene Seaman is Senior Partner at Hill & Company, which can trace its history in Altrincham back over 170 years

AT: And beyond the first hearing?

DK: It is often the case that the application will be listed for preliminary hearings to assess whether or not matters can be agreed by consent, as this is always the court’s preference.

In the unlikely event that you do proceed to a final hearing, this hearing will likely take place in person at the family court as these hearings are very difficult to conduct remotely.

AT: What if a Child Arrangements Order is made but one parent does not stick to the order?

DK: As Child Arrangement Orders are binding, refusing to comply has serious consequences. If a parent breaches the terms of the order, the other parent can apply to enforce the order.

AT: What sanctions will the breaching party face?

DK: If a child arrangements order has been knowingly breached the court can order a wide range of penalties: from 40-200 hours of unpaid work to, at the most extreme end of the spectrum, fines and imprisonment.

The court also importantly has the power to vary an original agreement to recognise a new situation.

Dan Knox, a family solicitor and trusted legal advisor who has recently joined Hill & Company, is available to assist clients new and old in all aspects of family law. If you are facing any family law issues and would like to ask him a question, please contact him on 0161 928 3201 or email d.knox@hillandcompany.co.uk

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