A child arrangements order sets out who a child is to live with and/or who a child is to spend time with. The decisions made by this type of order used to be set out in residence orders, and contact orders. The aim behind the introduction of child arrangements orders was to be more straightforward and child focused. If you currently have a residence order or contact order in place, you do not need to reapply.
A court will only make an order in relation to a child if it considers that it is necessary to do so. In most cases parents will agree the arrangements for their children and the court will not make any order.
When making decisions about children the most important consideration is the welfare of the child. The court must ensure that any arrangements put in place are safe for the children, and that they will not be exposed to any risk of harm. The court will have regard to the welfare checklist as set out below:
- The ascertainable wishes and feelings of the child concerned considered in the light of their age and understanding
- The child's physical, emotional and educational needs.
- The likely effect on the child of any change in their circumstances.
- The child's age, sex, background and any characteristics which the court considers relevant.
- Any harm which the child has suffered or is at risk of suffering.
- How capable each of the child's parents or any other person in relation to whom the court considers the question to be relevant is in meeting their needs.
- The range of powers available to the court under the Children Act in the proceedings in question.
If parents cannot agree where a child will live and/or who they will spend time with, the court will make a decision. Parents will however be encouraged to reach agreement between themselves, including using mediation.
The making of a child arrangements order does not take away parental responsibility from people who already have parental responsibility.
A child arrangements order setting out who a child will live with can be made in favour of people who do not have parental responsibility. In such a case, that person will automatically acquire parental responsibility as well, but only for so long as the Order is in force. Parental responsibility acquired in this way is subject to limitations.
The court does sometimes make an order for the child to live with more than one person. This used to be called shared residence. It does not necessarily mean that the child would spend equal time with each party. The court has wide ranging powers and will tailor the order to meet the specific needs of each case.
Where an application for a child arrangements order concerns who the child is to spend time with, the court has wide ranging powers as to the forms of contact that can be put in place. The contact can be direct, face to face, or indirect, such as telephone calls, emails and letters, or by Skype. Indirect contact may be agreed or ordered by the court in cases where the parents live far apart or where there are serious concerns of risk of harm to the child if direct contact takes place.
The contact may be supervised where another appropriate person is present. Contact may also take place at a contact centre. Contact centres have been set up across the country and are often staffed by volunteers. Contact at a contact centre is usually for a short term only and is often supported rather than supervised.
Where there is a child arrangements order specifying with whom a child is to live in force, no person can cause the child to be known by a new surname or remove the child from the UK, without written consent from all those with parental responsibility or permission from the court. However, this does not mean that, just because a child arrangements order is not in place, anyone can change a child's name or remove a child from the UK without the permission of all those with parental responsibility or an order of the court. See parental responsibility and taking children abroad.
A person with a child arrangements order specifying the child is to live with them, may take the child referred to out of the UK for periods of less than one month without consent of the other person or a court order. The person without the Order needs to seek consent if they wish to take that child abroad.
Should a party not comply with a child arrangements order, an application can be made to the court to have the order enforced. The court has various powers to enforce an order, including ordering the other parent to pay a fine, do unpaid work, pay compensation and even committal to prison. Sometimes a court may consider changing who the child lives with if contact is not taking place.
If the court considers it would be helpful, it can direct that the parents attend a parenting information programme (SPIP) to assist parents in understanding the impact of their separation on their children.
A child arrangements order can have important implications on the future arrangements for a child and it is important to obtain specific legal advice on your circumstances before making an application to the court or agreeing to a child arrangements order being made.
If you have any questions about child arrangements order, please contact our Family Law Specialists.