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Court proceedings for child arrangement orders: a parents’ guide

Dec 4, 2023 | Uncategorised

In the event of divorce or breakup, most parents are able to reach an agreement about child arrangements. Typically, these arrangements are made verbally. Less often, they’re made via forms of dispute resolution such as mediation.

However, some negotiations reach an impasse – and in these cases, it can be necessary to apply to the courts to make a child arrangement order.

In this article, we run through the order of events in court proceedings for child arrangement orders. Before we go any further, it’s important to note that this is a simplified version – the full programme can be found here.

Please also note that this is a different procedure from when the local authority starts a court case because of concerns about child protection.

When are court proceedings necessary?

Court proceedings are necessary when other forms of dispute resolution have failed to reach an agreement. Responsibility is handed over to the court to decide where the child or children will live, when they will spend time with each parent, and any other forms of contact.

The court can also be asked to settle other issues, such as where the child or children go to school. They can also be asked to issue a prohibited steps order, which legally prevents one of the parties from doing something related to the child.

The first step is the “application”, where one party begins court proceedings.

Application

Most of the time, parents can start proceedings without permission – but in certain cases, they need to seek “leave” to apply.

Before making the application, all parties must show that they have attended MIAM – a mediation information and assessment meeting.

Mediation is an alternative form of dispute resolution. Rather than being presided over by a judge who delivers a verdict of guilty or not guilty, mediation involves a professional mediator nudging the parties towards a resolution.

Mediation is more and more encouraged these days, partly as a way of easing the court backlog.

However, some cases aren’t suitable for mediation – for instance, if the relationship involves domestic violence.

If mediation reaches a deadlock or is deemed unsuitable to begin with, an application can be made to the court.

The applicant has to fill out specific forms – typically a C100. This document sets the timetable of court proceedings in motion.

The applicant then has to “serve” (send) paperwork to the other party at least 14 days before the first court hearing. If you don’t have a lawyer, the court can serve the papers for you.

The other party (respondent) then has to acknowledge receipt of the documents and fill in an answer form (usually form C7) within 14 days.

Cafcass

At this point, the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass) starts to make enquiries about safeguarding with the police and social services. Both parties will be contacted by Cafcass about any issues related to the safety of the child or children.

First hearing

The First Hearing Dispute Resolution Appointment (FHDRA) takes place at a minimum of four weeks after the application. This is to give time for safeguarding checks – and, indeed, can be postponed if those checks aren’t completed.

At the first hearing, the court will consider safeguarding information. They’ll listen to both parties but not yet hear evidence. As with mediation, this session aims to get parties to resolve the matter themselves – but this time with a judge present, not a mediator.

If an agreement is made, the judge issues the child arrangement order and the case is over.

If there’s no agreement, the judge can make directions to move the case forward. Interim orders can be made – for instance, orders relating to parents’ contact with the child or children while the case is in motion.

The court can order Cafcass to prepare a safeguarding report if either party raises a concern about the welfare of the child or children. This will typically take 12 weeks to prepare and involves conversations between the Cafcass officer, parents and, in some cases, children. When finished, the report will make recommendations for the arrangement order.

If the applicant and respondent dispute facts – such as an allegation of domestic abuse – the judge may direct a “fact-finding hearing”. For this, both parents have to provide both written and oral evidence.

Dispute resolution appointment

Next, a dispute resolution appointment takes place. This has the same aim as the first hearing – to reach an agreement so that a final child arrangement order can be made.

If an agreement still can’t be reached, the case is listed for a final hearing.

Final hearing

Before the final hearing, the applicant has to prepare a bundle containing all the papers and statements in the case. This is for use by both sides and the judge. If you don’t have a lawyer, the court can do this for you. The bundle should include an up-to-date summary, a “position statement” (what you want to achieve from the hearing) and a timeline of events.

The final hearing is a trial. Both parties give evidence and can challenge each other’s evidence. If Cafcass prepared a report, this will be presented and examined.

The judge will listen to all the evidence and make a decision. This decision is the child arrangement order.

This is usually the end of the story. However, if an order isn’t followed or needs changing, there may need to be an additional application to court.

How we can help

At Milners, we have a team of experienced, sensitive family lawyers who can represent you in court proceedings for child arrangement orders.

We understand that it’s a complex and stressful process. Our priority is to be a sympathetic ally, fighting your corner and putting your child’s best interests front and centre.

So if you need legal advice regarding a child arrangement order, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

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