Who decides how much contact each parent can have?
Decisions about contact, and the child’s living arrangements, can be made in several ways. You and your ex-partner will need to agree where the child will live, how they will be supported financially, and the amount of time they will spend with each parent. Usually, parents can reach an understanding between themselves on these issues. You can record the agreement in an informal parenting plan, or a family solicitor can draft a legally binding agreement by consent through the court. Should you and your ex-partner be unable to agree on terms, you can try to resolve any outstanding issues through a mediator. A mediator’s job is to ensure that both parents can make their points and to try to resolve disputes, so an agreement can be reached outside court proceedings. If the mediation does not work – or is not possible due to abuse or violence in the relationship, then a court order can be sought to help to settle the issues. This is usually the last resort when all other routes have failed.
What arrangements are available for contact?
Generally, the parent who is not living with the child should be allowed a ‘reasonable’ amount of contact. Contact should only be withdrawn when that contact would be against the child’s best interests. Contact is defined as ‘direct’ when the parent is physically with the child, or ‘indirect’ when it is via phone calls, letters, emails or other non-physical methods.
The arrangement reached can be flexible to suit a child’s needs and the family’s specific situation. So, the child may live with both parents at different times. Or they may live with just one parent and have pre-arranged dates when they spend time with the other parent. In some arrangements, the child has regular overnight stays with the non-resident parent, whereas others may spend time with the child at weekends, or alternating between longer periods of residency at each household. You will need to consider practical issues too, such as where the child goes to school too, work commitments.
How flexible can the arrangements be?
Sometimes a parent will arrange specific dates for a child to spend time with the other parent well in advance, whereas other parents are more flexible and short-term with the arrangements they make. When it comes to holidays and important dates like Christmas, contact can be shared, or some families opt to alternate where a child will stay at the first household one year, and then the other household the year after.
What else do we need to think about?
However you decide to manage contact, it’s important to be clear, and to communicate effectively with the other parent. Both parents must be reasonable and considerate when making and following the arrangements. It’s also worth discussing the times of the day when indirect contact is appropriate, and you may want to agree on the types of parental decisions that can be taken without prior discussion.
Whatever arrangements you reach, remember that children should have access to – and a relationship with – both parents wherever possible, as long as it is safe. If you are in a situation where contact is difficult due to a problematic relationship between the parents, meetings can be arranged in an agreed, neutral meeting place. This might help to remove some of the emotional elements from the equation. It’s also possible for contact to take place in a supervised setting. This could be the house of a mutual friend, or at a grandparent’s or contact centre. This can provide added peace of mind, helping to resolve potential disputes. If you have any safeguarding concerns about contact taking place, you should obtain legal advice.
However you feel about your ex-partner, it is important to accept that your child is entitled to a relationship with them and that you have a responsibility to allow and encourage that to happen. Drawing up an agreed parenting plan can help to ensure that any arrangements and boundaries are clear and defined – and that you have addressed and talked about important decisions constructively and collaboratively. Communicating, and coming to an agreement early on, will help everyone to follow the arrangements and reduce any potential future issues. If you are unable to agree, seeking solicitor advice early on can be helpful, giving both parties clarity and accurate information, which can prevent disagreements from escalating.
How does Coronavirus affect contact with my child?
The Coronavirus pandemic, and subsequent restrictions limiting contact between households, have left many separated parents worried and confused. While everybody needs to be extra vigilant during this period, the government has clarified that children are allowed to maintain direct contact with separated parents. Children under 18 are allowed to move between households, where it is safe to do so, and where nobody in either household is showing symptoms of the virus. It is, of course, important to take care to minimise the risk of spreading the infection at all times. Equally, you should consider whether there are any vulnerable people in either household. Steps may need to be taken to protect vulnerable people, and it may be reasonable to restrict direct contact during this period. Issues may also arise when it comes to travel, or arrangements to meet in public places. It is worth thinking about whether a greater amount of indirect contact is reasonable, should direct contact be more limited.
We also need to accept that Covid-19 is potentially a long-term problem. The virus could raise its head again in the future, should infections spike. Thinking about the challenges involved now, and clarifying the situation and plans with your ex-partner as early as possible, is advisable. Of course, this is an evolving and unique situation, so if you require any advice from our team of family lawyers, do get in touch.
No separation is easy, but it is possible to navigate the obstacles successfully – even during unusual times like these. All family situations are different, but it is more than possible to reach a fair agreement that ensures both parents can successfully maintain healthy contact with their children.