Child arrangements – England & Wales

Parental Responsibility and Child Arrangements

Disagreements about a range of child-related matters between parents, or others with responsibility for a child, can arise when a relationship has come to an end. You may be unable to agree on the living and/or contact arrangements, which school they will attend or what medical care they will received. 

This guide will help to identify what rights and responsibilities you have and, if an agreement cannot be reached about the arrangements for a child, what options you have. 

What is parental responsibility?

Parental responsibility is a term used to represent the legal rights, duties, powers, responsibilities and authorities that a parent (or other person/agency) has in relation to a child. In practice, this covers the whole range of decisions that parents can make on behalf of their child, such as their choice of education, religion and medical care amongst other things. 

Where a child is born to parents who are married then they both have automatic parental responsibility for them. If the parents are unmarried then only the mother automatically obtains parental responsibility for the child; any other person must either be named as the other parent on the birth certificate, have been granted parental responsibility by the parent/s or obtain an order from the court. 

In some instances, where a child is no longer in the care of their parent, the person with care can apply for an order enabling them to exercise parental responsibility in place of the parents (save for issues of change of name, taking the child out of the jurisdiction and consent to adoption, which rights remain with the parents). This is known as a Special Guardianship Order and, amongst other things, also provides the person with care with a wide range of support services, including means tested financial support.

Child arrangement orders

If parents are unable to reach an agreement about the arrangements for their children, following the breakdown of their relationship and separation, then they can make application to court for an order determining where a child shall live and/or how much time they shall spend with either parent (referred to as Child Arrangement Orders).

In reaching a decision about the child arrangements the court will have paramount consideration to the child/ren’s welfare, including age, sex, wishes and feelings, capabilities of the respective parents, issues of harm etc. In practice, they will look at the individual, circumstances of the case and set out an arrangement that they consider to be in the best interest of the child. 

There is no set pattern for the arrangements and the range of options are tailored to each family and the child’s individual circumstances. 

It is noted that applications for child arrangement orders are not limited to the parents and can be made by others, such as grandparents, conditions permitting. In this event, the person making the application will need to apply for permission from the court (known as ‘leave’) before the application would the be considered following the same process as above. However, grandparents are generally successful in obtaining leave. 

What other orders can the court make?

Parents, and others with parental responsibility, can also ask the court to make the following orders:

  1. Prohibited steps order

This order prevents a parent taking a step in meeting their parental responsibility without first obtaining the consent of the other parent or court (i.e. preventing the baptism of a child before it takes place).

  1. Specific issue order

This order determines a specific question in connection with either parent’s exercise of their parental responsibility for a child (i.e. which school should a child attend).

What can I expect once I make an application?

Once an application is made the court will serve papers on the other parent (and/or anyone else with parental responsibility for the child) and set a date for the first hearing. In general you will wait at least 6 weeks for the first hearing; however, if the application is urgent it you can be in court within days.

In non-urgent cases, all parties will be contacted before the first hearing by the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (or CAFCASS / CAFCASS Cymru). They will prepare a report and identify any safeguarding issues, asking you questions about yourself, the other parties and the children, amongst other things. .

The first hearing is called a First Hearing Dispute Resolution Appointment. If all parties agree, then you will meet with the other parent/parties and with the CAFCASS Officer to see if an agreement can be reached between you in a conciliation appointment. If you do, then the court can choose to make an order setting out the agreement, or make no order and simply noting the arrangements on court record. 

If you cannot  reach an agreement, then the court will consider what further steps need to be taken before they can make a decision at a Final Hearing. These may include, but are not limited to:

  1. Determination of any allegations of domestic violence;
  2. Requesting a report and recommendations from CAFCASS Cymru or Social Services; and/or
  3. Expert evidence (i.e such as drug and alcohol testing / report from Child Psychologist);
  4. Statements of evidence from both parties. 

If you are unable to reach an agreement it is not unusual for the court to proceedings to involve at least 2-3 hearings before the Final Hearing can take place.