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Court proceedings over child arrangements

View profile for Karen Johnson
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Court proceedings over child arrangements

Figures were released earlier this month showing that Cafcass received a total of 3,284 new private law cases (involving 4,040 children) in December 2019. This was 7% higher than December 2018. This continues a trend of an increased number of private law children cases being issued since April 2018, when compared with the year prior.

The preference when dealing with disputes concerning children is that parents should try to reach an agreement if possible and that court should be a last resort. People who are experiencing difficulty in resolving issues regarding children between themselves should first consider mediation or instructing solicitors to try to negotiate an agreed outcome.

If an agreement is not possible, an application can be made to court. The court will still encourage the parties to reach an agreement but, if necessary, the court will make a decision based upon what is in a child’s best interests.

For those considering issuing proceedings, or those who receive notification that proceedings have been issued by their ex-partner, the involvement of the court can seem a very daunting prospect.

What can I expect when starting court proceedings regarding child arrangements?

An application for a Child Arrangements Order, Specific Issue Order or Prohibited Steps Order is made on form C100.

Unless the applicant is able to claim an exemption, the C100 will need to confirm that the applicant has attended a Mediation Information and Assessment Meeting.

A C1A form must also be completed where it is alleged that the child has or is at risk of suffering significant harm. 

Once issued by the court, the court will serve notice of the proceedings on every person who has parental responsibility. That notice will also confirm the date and time of the first hearing. Unless it is an emergency, that hearing will be between 5 and 6 weeks after the proceedings were issued. The court is also required to send Cafcass a copy of the C100 form, any C1A form and notice of hearing.

Upon receipt of notice of the proceedings, the Respondent should file an acknowledgement of the application within 14 days. If they consider that the child is at risk of harm, they should also file their own C1A.

Prior to the hearing, Cafcass will carry out initial safeguarding enquiries. This includes seeking information from the Local Authority and carrying out police checks on both parties. Where possible, Cafcass will also telephone both parties to discuss any safeguarding concerns they may have. Cafcass is then required to report its findings to the court so that these can be considered further.

The first hearing is called a First Hearing Dispute Resolution Appointment (FHDRA). Both the applicant and the respondent are required to attend. A Cafcass Officer will also be in attendance. The hearing gives the Judge working with the Cafcass Officer an opportunity to assist the parties in resolving the issues in dispute.

If an agreement can be reached, this would usually be set out in a consent order. If there are any issues that can not be agreed, then the Cafcass Officer will recommend to the court what steps could be taken to resolve the outstanding issues. The Judge will give directions as to the next steps.

Those directions will very much depend upon the nature of the issues in dispute. They might include provision for both parties to file statements, expert reports such as drug or alcohol testing, medical evidence, Cafcass or Local Authority Reports and the listing of further hearings.

When dealing with court proceedings, it is entirely up to you whether you wish to obtain legal representation or represent yourself. Following the changes to eligibility for Legal Aid, the courts became increasingly used to dealing with self-representing litigants. However, it is really important to appreciate that whilst the court and their staff will do what they can to help, they cannot give legal advice.

It is also possible for people who choose to represent themselves to take another person into court as a McKenzie Friend. However, a word of caution. Whilst I am sure that there are a number of “good” McKenzie Friends, they are limited in the role that they can take in the proceedings. Many have no legal training at all. As such, they should not be considered the same as instructing a solicitor or barrister.

At Birkett Long LLP, all of our family lawyers are specialists and can offer advice and assistance in relation to issues involving children as well as other family disputes. All of our lawyers are members of Resolution. We take pride in our provision of the highest quality of service. We seek to resolve disputes in a constructive way, designed to preserve dignity and always putting the best interests of children first.

If you are experiencing difficulties in resolving issues regarding children, please contact our specialist team of family and divorce lawyers. We offer a free initial 15 minute discussion to find out how we can help you.

I am a family lawyer based in our Colchester office. I can be contacted on 01206 217305 or karen.johnson@birkettlong.co.uk.

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