In any family breakdown or divorce, one of the most crucial and sensitive issues to address is the welfare and well-being of the children involved. When parents separate or cannot agree on live with arrangements, the courts may step in to make decisions in the best interests of the children. In such cases, the courts issue Child Arrangement Orders (CAOs) to determine with whom the child will live and how much time they will spend with each parent. The primary goal of a CAO is to ensure that the children's needs are prioritised and that they maintain a meaningful relationship with both parents.
Understanding Child Arrangement Orders:
Child Arrangement Orders were introduced through the Children and Families Act 2014 as part of the government's effort to reform the family justice system. These orders replaced the previous "residence" and "contact" orders and aim to promote a more child-centred approach to family disputes.
A CAO is a legal document issued by the family court that sets out the specific arrangements for the child's living situation and time spent with each parent. The order can cover various aspects, such as:
· Live with (previously called Residence): This determines with whom the child will live primarily. It does not mean that the child will live exclusively with the parent named in the order, but that they will have their main residence with them.
· Spend time with (previously called Contact): This specifies the time the child will spend with the non-resident parent. It outlines the schedule of visits, holidays, and any other contact arrangements.
· Specific Issue Orders: These deal with specific aspects of the child's upbringing or welfare. For example, deciding which school the child should attend, medical treatment, or religious upbringing.
· Prohibited Steps Orders: These are used to prevent a specific action without the court's permission, such as taking the child out of the country or changing their surname.
Factors Considered by the Court:
When deciding on Child Arrangement Orders, the court considers the paramount consideration, which is the welfare of the child. The court will take into account various factors, including:
· Child's Wishes and Feelings: The court will consider the child's age, maturity, and understanding to ascertain their views on the matter. However, the weight given to these views will depend on the child's age and level of understanding.
· Parenting capacity: The court will assess each parent's ability to meet the child's physical and emotional needs, their commitment to the child's well-being, and their willingness to facilitate a relationship with the other parent.
· Stability and Continuity: The court will consider the importance of maintaining stability in the child's life and continuity in their care arrangements, especially if they have been living with one parent as their primary caregiver.
· Risk of Harm: The court will also take into account any evidence of abuse, neglect, or any other risks to the child's well-being. Safeguarding the child's safety is of utmost importance.
· Sibling and Family Relationships: The court will consider the importance of preserving relationships with siblings and extended family members, if appropriate.
· Child's Educational and Emotional Needs: The court will examine how each parent can support the child's education and emotional development.
Alternative Dispute Resolution:
Before applying for a Child Arrangement Order, it is encouraged that parents try to resolve their disputes through mediation or other forms of alternative dispute resolution. Mediation can be an effective way to reach an agreement outside of court, with the help of a neutral third party. This approach is generally less adversarial and less emotionally taxing for the children involved.
Child Arrangement Orders are crucial legal tools to ensure that children's best interests are protected and that they have meaningful relationships with both parents after a family breakdown. The court's primary focus is on the welfare of the child, and parents are encouraged to prioritise their children's needs during such challenging times. While court proceedings can be difficult, seeking mediation and open communication can help parents find amicable solutions that benefit everyone involved, particularly the children whose well-being should always remain at the forefront of any decision-making process.