Relationship breakdown is a very painful time for the adults involved, but it can be even more difficult for children.
Children within the family are often the innocent and confused casualties of the breakdown of a relationship.
What if I can’t agree contact arrangements with my ex-partner?
Many parents are able to agree between themselves arrangements for their children which enable them to continue to enjoy a relationship with both parents.
For many other families, contact arrangements cannot be agreed. Some parents choose to engage in mediation as a means of trying to negotiate a solution.
Where mediation is not suitable or has proved unsuccessful, an application can be made to Family Courts to resolve the issue of contact.
Children proceedings in Northern Ireland are initially dealt with by the Family Proceedings Court – in this Court, the child’s best interests are the primary concern. This means that the main focus will always be on the welfare of the child first, rather than the rights of either parent. It is a commonly held view that if safe and appropriate, a child should enjoy a relationship with both parents.
What will the Court look at when deciding on contact arrangements?
Each family is a unique group of individuals and in considering an application for contact, the Court will look at the particular circumstances of the child and family in question. Contact arrangements will differ depending on the circumstances of each family.
The views and the feelings of the child involved are also taken into account and a Court Children’s Officer (who is essentially, a Court-appointed Social Worker) may be asked to speak with the children individually to try to ascertain what these are.
How much weight is given to a particular child’s wishes will depend upon the age and understanding of that child: for example, the views of a 14 year old child would weigh more heavily in influencing decisions than those of an 8 year old child.
Additionally, a child will not be forced to have contact with someone they are afraid of or who harms them in any way.
What is a Contact Order?
Contact Orders are Court Orders which set out the arrangements for when the non-resident parent can see their children.
Contact arrangements can vary in each case and therefore there are many different Contact Orders which a Court could make including the following:-
- Indirect contact – for example, the exchange of letters, cards and e-mails between parent and child with no regular visits
- Direct contact – regular weekly contact between the child and parent
- Overnight contact
- Holiday contact – for example, additional contact at Easter, summer or Christmas.
Contact can also be supervised in cases where the Court directs that a relative or social worker must be present during visits.
How do Court proceedings conclude?
In most cases, Orders are made by agreement between the parents with the help of their legal advisors; this is the most preferable method, as Orders which are made with the consent of both parents are much more likely to work successfully in the future and reduce antagonism between the parties. However, where agreement cannot be reached, the Court will fully hear arguments from both parents and will ultimately make a Contact Order which is deemed to be in the best interests of the child.
When seeking a Solicitor to deal with this particular kind of case, it is important that you look for not only legal representation and good negotiation skills – your Solicitor should be understanding and be capable of supporting you through this difficult period in life whilst progressing towards a workable arrangement which is in your child’s best interests.
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