What is the best advice to parents about putting their children’s interests first when they go to see a lawyer after separating? Here, Jane McDonagh, family law partner of the leading legal firm Simons Muirhead and Burton, gives some practical advice. She writes:
As family lawyers, we see people at the initial stages of separation, when anxiety and stress levels can be very high. Parents have many pressing issues to deal with at this point and they may consider that the children are doing fine, even though tensions in the family are high. It is often the case though that children feel this tension even if they don’t talk about it openly. So it can be a huge relief for children to talk through their thoughts and feelings about their parents’ separation – it is also very useful for parents to take time to listen to children in this way at this stressful time.
When it comes to thinking about arrangements for the children following separation, pd think carefully as to what arrangements will be most comfortable and suitable for the children, and what would work best for the children.
Questions you need to ask include:
1. Who should be the primary or main carer of the children – i.e. who will look after the children day to day? who has been the primary carer so far, and is there any reason for this to change now?
2. What arrangements should there be for the other parent to see the children, during the week and at weekends? Will the children be able to stay over at the other parent’s house regularly? It often works best when there is a regular routine; flexibility has its advantages but can sometimes lead to increased arguments over arrangements between parents due to misunderstandings etc. Also children lose the certainty that a routine can bring, at a time when they may need it most.
3. Perhaps you may consider shared care to be the best arrangement for the children, in which case the children spend significant amounts of time with each parent, and there is no primary carer as such – though time does not necessarily have to be shared equally. This can be a very positive experience for children in the right situation but parents need to consider what is genuinely in their child’s best interests, think constructively about shared responsibilities and work hard to ensure that practical things like homework and other important issues don’t fall between two stools.
4. Holidays need to be agreed between parents; perhaps special days e.g. Christmas or other religious holidays will be alternated between each; and other school holidays may be shared in some way. It’s best to make an agreement in principle and it may be helpful to write this down so both parents have a clear understanding of how holidays will be agreed in any given year.
The law states that unless there is a real disagreement over arrangements for children, no Court Order will be necessary. So family lawyers don’t need to become involved unless there real concerns or problems or disagreements over arrangements.
Sometimes the help of a family mediator or a family lawyer is needed if there is a dispute about any of these arrangements and it can sometimes be necessary for a Court to determine what is in the best interests of the children concerned. In that case, the Judge looks at all the evidence including the report of a family welfare officer who will have met the children, both with their parents and alone, and formed some kind impression as to what may be the best solution for the child. Attempts are made to deal with these issues as sensitively as possible in the circumstances, to avoid unnecessary stress for the children; but it should always be borne in mind that acrimony between parents can take its toll on children, and it can be painful for them to be directly involved in disagreements or asked to take sides.