When a relationship breaks down, you will of course be worried about your children. Making sure their welfare comes first and that their lives aren’t turned completely upside down can be very stressful. Having a friendly lawyer you trust on your side can make all the difference.
Our family law solicitors support families across West Sussex through some of the toughest times of their lives, including making arrangements for children after divorce, civil partnership dissolution and separation.
Our child law expertise includes:
- Arranging child residence and contact – where children will live most of the time and how much time they will spend with each parent.
- Financial provision for children.
- Parental responsibility – making sure you have the rights and responsibilities to make decisions about your children’s upbringing, and helping you make co-parenting decisions.
- Adoption – all the legal aspects, such as applying for Adoption Orders.
It is critical that issues relating to any children are handled with the utmost care and sensitivity. The courts encourage parents to try to agree the arrangements between them. Failing this, if parents can't reach agreement, then the courts have wide-ranging powers to intervene in the best interests of the children.
We take a similar approach, helping our clients make a voluntary co-parenting plan with their ex-partner. We can also refer you to specialist mediators if right for you.
However, we know that sometimes conflict arises, and it is not your fault if you cannot avoid court. We are also here to help you make and defend all kinds of child-related court applications, including urgent and emergency applications.
Speak to our child law solicitors in West Sussex
To discuss your requirements and find out how we can help, please get in touch to speak to one of our child law specialists.
Our child law advice services
Child residence and contact
Deciding where children will live after you get divorced or separate from your partner is often the most contentious part of divorce.
Both parents naturally want to spend as much time as possible with their children. As time passes, parents may also welcome others into the child’s life such as new partners and step-siblings, and this may be concerning for you.
We are here to support you with all matters relating to child residence and contact. Our child solicitor helps families agree co-parenting plans that work for everyone. We are also always here to help you revisit a co-parenting plan or sort out a disagreement with your ex-partner (for example, a dispute over whether a child can have contact with a new partner).
Financial provision for children
There are many ways you can make sure you can raise your children in financial security after you separate from you partner, such as:
- Agreeing child maintenance or applying to the Child Maintenance Service (CMS) for regular payments. Visit our child maintenance page for more information.
- Agreeing or getting a court order for a lump sum payment.
- Agreeing or getting a court order for the transfer of property (for example, if your ex-partner leaves the family home, one option is they transfer their share to you, allowing you to raise the children there).
We can provide practical advice about all your options, so you can confidently make decisions about how you want to provide for your children going forwards.
Parental responsibility is (very confusingly) different to being a child’s parents. It is the rights and responsibilities an adult has to raise a child – usually, parental responsibility belongs to the parents.
It is vital to ensure that you have parental responsibility when you separate from your partner, because if you don’t, you may find it harder to get a say in your child’s upbringing.
Birth mothers always automatically have parental responsibility for their child. But fathers and second parents only get it if:
- They were married or in a civil partnership with the mother at the time of birth.
- Their name is on the birth certificate.
- They made a parental responsibility agreement with the mother or got a court order.
We can help you work out if you have parental responsibility and obtain it if you do not. We can also help parents with parental responsibility make decisions for their children, such as:
- Where they should go to school.
- Whether they should have a religious education.
- Whether they can change their surname.
- Whether they can go abroad for a long time (on holiday or permanently).
- Decisions about their medical treatment.
Adoption is a wonderful way to expand your family, but having the right legal advice is essential to make sure the process goes smoothly and you get all your parental rights.
We can support you through the entire process, taking on the burden of all the legal issues so you can focus on welcoming your new addition to the family.
Common questions about children law
Do you have to go to mediation when you get divorced or separate?
You may have heard that you have to go to family mediation before you can apply to court nowadays.
Mediation is a great way for families to sort out their issues after separation without having to get the courts involved. It tends to be faster and cheaper than court. The process is also friendlier and less formal, so it can also be a lot less stressful than court.
Our children law solicitor can refer you to specialist mediators if we agree it’d be right for you. However, we know mediation does not suit everybody. And sometimes, your partner may refuse to go to mediation even if you’re up for it.
Before we apply to court, if you haven’t tried mediation, you will usually need to attend a Mediation Information and Assessment Meeting (a MIAM). This is just a short meeting to decide whether mediation would suit you. Your ex-partner does not have to attend with you, so if they’re refusing it doesn’t matter.
At the end of your MIAM or mediation sessions, you will get a certificate that allows you to apply for court.
Some people are also exempt from attending mediation or a MIAM. We can provide practical advice about all your options.
What orders can the court make about children?
The court can make all sorts of useful orders, including:
Child Arrangements Order
Child Arrangement Orders used to be split into Residence Orders and Contact Orders.
Residence determines who a child shall live with; shared Residence Orders are possible in some cases.
Contact requires the person the child lives with to allow the child to visit or stay with a person named in the order, or for that person and the child to have contact with each other. Contact can include indirect contact by way of telephone calls or letters, etc. Contact Orders can contain conditions and limitations.
Specific Issue Order
A Specific Issue Order details specific aspects of a child's upbringing or of parental responsibility. For example, it can determine which school a child should attend, what religion a child should be brought up in, whether a child should undergo an operation or change his/her name, and other major issues concerning a child’s life.
Prohibited Steps Order
A Prohibited Steps Order prevents someone from doing something which they could normally do within the exercise of their parental responsibility. For example, they can be prohibited from allowing a child contact with a particular person, from visiting a child at school, or from removing the child from the jurisdiction (temporarily or permanently).
The court can appoint a guardian for a child if no one has parental responsibility for them, or if someone with a Residence Order/Child Arrangements Order in respect of a child has died. The appointment of a guardian can be made under a Will, but this only takes effect on the death of the last person with parental responsibility for the child or of the person with a Residence Order/Child Arrangements Order.
It is possible to issue applications to the court without notifying the other party in urgent cases, such as child abduction.
Financial provision for children
Where unmarried parents separate, an application can be made for a Financial Order under Schedule 1 of the Children Act 1989 for a lump sum and/or a property adjustment order for the benefit of the child. For example, a parent may be able to apply for a lump sum to buy a house for the child to live in.
The range of powers available to the court is much more limited than those available for children of married parents. Any order must be for the benefit of the child.
Private adoption includes adoption of a child by a step-parent or a family member, inter-country adoption of a non-related child and adoption on a private basis.
An Adoption Order officially names the adoptive parents of a child as the legal parents and severs ties with the birth family.
Domestic violence court orders
Emergency steps can be taken to prevent physical harm to a family member. The court has wide-ranging powers to make Mon-molestation and Occupation Orders to protect against physical harm and harassment.
Why does the court get involved?
Most of the law relating to children is primarily governed by the Children Act 1989 and subsequent legislation. The thinking behind the Act is that when parents separate, they remain parents to their children and it is their responsibility to make suitable arrangements.
The court only gets involved when the adults who are responsible for decision-making are unable to agree on what is best for their children. The court will not make any order unless it considers intervening to be in the best interests of the child.
What does the court consider when reaching a decision?
The court has to consider several criteria set out in the Children Act. The court must take the welfare of the child as its paramount consideration, meaning any decision should be taken based on what is best for the child. The court will not make an order unless there is a positive benefit to the child in making an order.
In considering what is best for the child, the court has to consult the “welfare check list”, which is guidance set out in the Children Act. The court must take account of all of the factors in the welfare checklist, but does not have to give them all equal weight.
What is CAFCASS, and what do they do?
The role of the Children and Family Court Advisory & Support Service (CAFCASS) is to assist the court by providing a fuller picture of a family's circumstances, helping parents reach agreement about their children and making recommendations to the Court about what would be the best outcome for the children.
Judges do not normally see the children with the family and probably will not meet the children during the court case, so rely on the CAFCASS officer for further details about the situation. The CAFCASS officer will interview the parents and will meet with the children. They will try to ascertain the children’s views and wishes, as well as the circumstances giving rise to the case.
The CAFCASS officer will report on the home conditions and provide any other information that may be relevant for the court. They will usually contact the child’s school for further information. The CAFCASS officer will then write a report for the court. Their views and recommendations are very important to the court because they are independently appointed to assist in decision making.
Can a court order be changed?
All orders relating to children can be changed at any time, and the court will simply decide whether or not it is in the best interests of the child to change the order.
Orders will only change on an application by someone entitled to apply to the court. If the parents have been able to agree changes amongst themselves, it is still sensible to refer the matter back to the court to obtain a changed court order. Otherwise, if the agreement breaks down the position is as stated in the court order.