The breakdown of a relationship can be an extremely stressful and emotionally challenging time, even more so when children are involved.
In some circumstances, unfortunately, parents are not able to agree care arrangements for children amicably between themselves. There are a number of different orders, under Section 8 of the Children Act 1989 that the court may make to facilitate care arrangements. One of these is a contact order.
A contact order is 'an Order requiring the person with whom the child lives, or is to live, to allow the child to visit or stay with the person named in the Order, or for that person and the child otherwise to have contact with each other'. Contact can occur in a variety of manners, including visiting or staying contact, or indirect contact, such as by telephone, email or letters.
The court’s starting point is that it is in the child’s best interests to have contact with both parents. However, the court’s paramount consideration will always be given to the welfare of the child.
Permission to apply
A parent of a child does not need prior permission to apply to the court for a contact order. The same is true for a guardian or special guardian of a child, step-parents with parental responsibility, and someone who has a residence order in their favour.
Other connected people to the child, such as grandparents, uncles and aunts, will need to apply to the court for permission first, using a form C2.
Applications to the court in relation to children under S.8 of the Children Act 1989 are made using a form C100. A form C1A may also need to be filed if there has been violence, a fear of violence or other harm. The court fee payable is £215.
First Hearing Dispute Resolution Appointment (FHDRA): Upon issuing the application, the court will list a short preliminary hearing, officially known as a First Hearing Dispute Resolution Appointment (FDHRA), or Conciliation Appointment, within 4-6 weeks.
Before this hearing, an officer of the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (CAFCASS), will undertake safeguarding checks. In addition, parties will be invited to attend a brief meeting with the officer, who will listen to each party’s position. The CAFCASS officer will then prepare a short letter summarising their findings and recommendations to the court. The CAFCASS officer will also usually be present at the FHDRA.
The main purpose of the hearing is for the judge to hear the CAFCASS officer’s advice and identify areas of agreement between the parties. If parties are in agreement, the judge can make an order reflecting this.
If an agreement cannot be reached at this hearing, the judge will make directions and list the matter for a further hearing. The judge may make an interim contact order is he or she sees fit. Typically, parties will be required to file and exchange statements covering the background of their case, recent events and proposals for future contact. In addition, the judge may order that a detailed report be produced by another CAFCASS officer.
CAFCASS report: The assigned CAFCASS officer will meet with both parents, the child and possibly the child’s school and other family members. They will then prepare a report detailing suggested care arrangements that they believe to be in the best interest of the child. Typically, it will take between 13-15 weeks to produce. A copy of the report will be made available to all parties before the hearing. Whilst the judge is not bound by the report, CAFCASS reports are highly persuasive, and the judge will often rely heavily upon its recommendations.
Directions Appointment/Review Hearing and the Final Hearing: This hearing is usually listed for a couple of weeks after the production of the CAFCASS report. It will typically last for one hour and provides an opportunity for all parties to consider the contents of the report. The majority of cases conclude at this point, as parties agree to an order being made reflecting the recommendations in the report.
If an agreement cannot be reached, the matter will be listed for a final hearing, where both parents will be expected to give evidence and other witnesses may be invited, if necessary. Upon considering all of the evidence and the CAFCASS report as a whole, the judge will make an order.
Contact applications can prove to be a very drawn out process, with reviews of a final order being common. Parties should consider all their options carefully before embarking upon proceedings, and if it proves necessary, parties should try to be as pragmatic as possible. After all, is it really in the best interests of a child to have their parents endlessly fighting through the courts?
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