UPDATE: Back to school – or not?

back to school or not UPDATE

Back to school - or not?

Recently we blogged about Laurence Fox and his claim that he would take his sons out of school should vaccines be rolled out for 12-year-olds on the basis that he feared they would have the Covid jab without his permission.

Now there has been a case in America where a father in New York has been banned, by a family court judge, from seeing his daughter unless he gets the Covid vaccination.

Family Law Associate Melissa Jones looks at the issues.

This is an interesting scenario. In this particular case, contact was not deemed to be in the best interest of the child on the basis that  the father was opposed to the Covid vaccination. The judge was quite strict in his ruling, notably amid a worrying time in the middle of a global pandemic, and made the following comments:

“The dangers of voluntarily remaining unvaccinated during access with a child while the Covid-19 virus remains a threat to children’s health and safety cannot be understated.

“Unfortunately, and to my mind, incomprehensibly, a sizable minority, seizing upon misinformation, conspiracy theories, and muddled notions of ‘individual liberty’, have refused all entreaties to be vaccinated.”

What happens with contact in the UK if a parent refuses the vaccine?

It’s a possible worry for a lot of parents, but not one that has seemingly featured in the family courts in England and Wales. If this was a matter raised by a parent, within the English Courts, those Courts are likely to be guided by Cafcass, the advisory service to the Courts, to prepare an assessment to consider the risk factors and to decide whether contact is actually in a child’s best interest.

Extreme circumstances

In extreme circumstances, particularly if a child is medically vulnerable, Cafcass and the court may exercise caution: but it would be a rarity.  No doubt the Court would also consider NHS guidance and other expert evidence they consider necessary.  Plus, there are now many modern alternatives to face-to-face contact, such as video contact and voice notes, that could mean the parent and child relationship could be maintained.  It is a child’s right to have a relationship with both parents and the Court will want to maintain that relationship wherever possible.

The court application

If the other parent is strongly opposed to their child being vaccinated (not just the Covid vaccine) and they cannot agree on this, then they could apply to the court for a Prohibited Steps Order and/or Specific Issue Order, which are orders that can prevent certain actions being taken by a parent, and/or making decisions on matters that parents cannot agree upon in the exercising of their rights and duties relating to parental responsibility.  Medical issues fall into these categories.

The court will consider the parents’ opinions and the best interests of the children.

Before making an application to the court, it is expected that parents should try and resolve matters as best they can. Parents might wish to engage in negotiation through solicitors, mediation or arbitration before either one makes an application to the court.

The child’s welfare

The child’s welfare is the court’s paramount consideration. If you are faced with a request from the other parent to agree to vaccinate your child, it is best to take a pragmatic approach and decide as to whether you are simply opposed to the idea in general or whether you could perhaps identify some advantages to the move.

With the court considering what is in the child’s best interest, is therefore important for you to do your own research and have the necessary information to inform your decision/position.

If you are unsure about what to do in relation to arrangements for your children, we would advise you to seek specialist independent legal advice from an experienced family lawyer. Please do get in touch today. We’re here to help you.

When Adam met the judge

when adam met the judge

When Adam met the Judge

Adam: “Hi Judge. If you send me and my brothers home, will you give us a bodyguard?”

Judge: “Adam, if I thought you needed a bodyguard, I wouldn’t send you home.”

Partner Nick Hodson has specialised in the law relating to children for more than 20 years. Since 2001 he has been a member of the Law Society Children’s Panel, allowing him to represent children in both public and private law Children Act proceedings.

Here, he relates his experience of being the solicitor for Adam* and his brothers who wanted to meet the Judge who was going to hear their case.

Please be aware that reading some of the details in this story may be distressing.

 

*His name has been changed to protect his identity

This exchange was at a meeting at the Family Court when I took 11-year-old Adam and his brothers to meet the Judge who was going to hear their case.

I was the solicitor for the children. They had been removed from their parents care after the older children had made allegations that they had been physically abused by their parents. The children had said that they had been whipped with computer wires.

The child’s wishes and feelings

In making any decision about a child’s future, their wishes and feelings are a major consideration for the court. They are part of the welfare checklist that the court will review before concluding the case.

How are the children’s views relayed to the court?

Usually, the social worker and the CAFCASS officer will set out the children’s wishes and feelings in their reports. Sometimes, the children will write a letter to the Judge.

It has become increasingly common for older children to ask to meet the Judge. Over the past 18 months, such meetings have had to take place remotely. The Family Justice Council has produced guidance for judges who meet children during family proceedings. The guidelines are designed to encourage judges to enable children to feel more involved and connected to proceedings.

Key points from the guidance

* Such a meeting must be well planned and that everyone has to have a clear understanding of the purpose of the meeting.

* If a Judge decides to meet a child, it is a matter for the discretion of the Judge, having considered representations from the parties – (i) the purpose and proposed content of the meeting; (ii) at what stage during the proceedings, or after they have concluded, the meeting should take place; (iii) where the meeting will take place; (iv) who will bring the child to the meeting; (v) who will prepare the child for the meeting (this should usually be the Cafcass officer); (vi) who shall attend during the meeting – although a Judge should never see a child alone; (vii) by whom a minute of the meeting shall be taken, how that minute is to be approved by the Judge, and how it is to be communicated to the other parties.

* It cannot be stressed too often that the child’s meeting with the Judge is not for the purpose of gathering evidence.

* The purpose is to enable the child to gain some understanding of what is going on, and to be reassured that the Judge has understood him/her.

In the case of Adam and his brothers, at the final hearing the court decided that the parents had been responsible for the physical abuse on all their children.  The children remained in foster care.

The children’s voices had been heard loud and clear.

If you are affected by any of the issues raised here, please do get in touch. We’re here to help you.

McAlister Family Law ranked in Chambers and Partners

McAlister Family Law ranked in Chambers

McAlister Family Law ranked in Chambers

We are delighted to share the news that McAlister Family Law has been ranked in the renowned legal directory Chambers and Partners with several members of our award-winning team also being ranked for their individual expertise, and the practice itself described as comprising “really excellent lawyers – and they are great with clients.” 

Here we share our entry in Chambers:

What the team is known for

A boutique family firm with a growing presence in the Manchester market. Provides varied advice on both matrimonial finance and children matters, including public care proceedings. Regularly handles complex divorce settlements involving extremely high net worth individuals and multi-jurisdictional issues. Advises on matters surrounding complex business and inheritance structures.

Amanda McAlister

Managing partner Amanda McAlister retains her ranking as an “Eminent Practitioner” – an outstanding accolade.

She has deep experience in matrimonial finance cases, often taking on matters involving international clients as well as those that include complex pensions and trusts issues.

“She has bags of experience and super connections which she backs up with her knowledge of the law.”

Fiona Wood

Fiona Wood frequently assists clients with financial remedy proceedings and is particularly adept at advising on cases involving complex business assets.

“Fiona has excellent communication skills and is always excellent on points in cases; she is remarkable.” “Fiona Wood is a formidable, detailed and pragmatic lawyer.”

Nick Hodson

Nick Hodson has a respected family law practice. He is particularly noted for his expertise in public law children matters as well as private law proceedings.

“Nick Hodson is compassionate about what he does and always has the children at the centre of all cases. He is an excellent advocate and negotiator.” “He is well regarded in the public law children arena.”

Paul Webb

Paul Webb advises on a range of children matters including public law issues spanning multiple jurisdictions.

“Paul Webb is excellent. He is reliable, hard-working and very knowledgeable in family public law matters.” “He’s an extremely strong, well-rounded solicitor. He thinks of all the angles and all his cases are well prepared.”

 

Amanda said: “I am incredibly proud of this unbelievably talented and dedicated team of family lawyers. They are the very best.”

Do grandparents have legal rights?

grandparents rights

Do grandparents have legal rights?

When parents separate, disputes in relation to children of the family can not only include estrangement from a parent but extend to wider family members, particularly grandparents who can often be stuck in between parent’s arguments.

What can those grandparents do in such a challenging situation?  Partner Caroline Bilous explains.

Legally speaking, there are no grandparents’ rights, as usually grandparents do not have Parental Responsibility (all mothers and most fathers have Parental Responsibility, which refers to the legal rights and responsibilities a parent in respect of a child, the most important of which are to provide a home and protect and look after a child) in the same way as a parent might have, although they might acquire it if a parent is unable to care.

However, the Family Court recognises that it is in a child’s best interests to maintain good relationships with close family members, particularly grandparents, even if the parent of the child cannot, and as such, a court order called a Child Arrangements Order may be obtained to protect such relationships.

Do grandparents’ rights include the right to see a grandchild?

Grandparents do not have an automatic right to see a grandchild and above all, whatever the relationship between estranged parents, it is important to step back and try to avoid becoming involved in any disagreement, which is hard to do when it is your own child involved. Maintaining good relationships with the other parent goes a long way in avoiding difficulties further down the line.

Can a grandparent apply to the Family Court to see a grandchild?

Yes, but grandparents do not have an automatic right to apply to court to see a grandchild in the same way as a parent may apply to see and spend time with their own child. However, the Family Court would rarely refuse permission (or leave) for a grandparent to make an application, providing there is no good welfare reason why it should not, providing they can show a close and enduring relationship exists. Also, as a family member, permission is not required if a child has lived with a grandparent for a period of one year prior to the application being made.

How can I apply to see my grandchild if I’m being prevented from doing so?

It is important that early advice from an experienced child and family lawyer. Time can be of the essence and leaving matters too long can engrain difficult circumstances. Unless there are urgent circumstances, getting an initial court hearing will take a minimum of four weeks or more in any event, and as a first step, you will be required to attend upon a Mediation Information and Assessment Meeting (MIAM) to see if it possible to resolve matters with the assistance of a Mediator.

What orders can the Family Court make?

The court could make a Child Arrangement Order for a grandchild to spend time with a grandparent, in the same way as it could for a parent. Each family is different though and no two cases are the same. Just because you may have heard that one grandparent has obtained a certain order, it doesn’t necessarily follow that you will.

If you are affected by any of the issues raised here, please do get in touch. We’re here to help you.

Back to school – or not?

Laurence Fox back to school or not covid children

Back to school - or not?

Laurence Fox, who shares two sons, Winston, 12, and Eugene, nine, with ex-wife Billie Piper, has once again hit the headlines, this time in relation to the “anti-vaxx” row. He has claimed he will take his sons out of school should vaccinations be rolled out for 12-year-olds, saying he fears they will have the Covid jab without his permission.

The question is, can a parent remove a child from school in the first place?

Family Law Associate Melissa Jones looks at the options available.

There is no plan – as of yet – for children in schools to be vaccinated before they return to school in September. But were such a plan in place, would a parent be able to stop their children from going to school? Given that there is a central government policy stating that children must attend school, any parent stopping their child from doing so would be appear to be in contravention of this policy, and likely subject to fines.

Mr Fox appears to be suggesting is that he wants to de-register the children and home school them. To do so, he would need the other parent’s permission as they share parental responsibility (given that they were married to one another) and need to make important decisions like education in consultation with one another.

What is parental responsibility?

Parental responsibility is as per section 3(1) of the Children Act 1989 (CA 1989) which confers all the rights, duties, powers, responsibilities and authority which by law a parent of a child has in relation to a child and his property.

What happens if you cannot agree on home schooling?

If parents cannot agree arrangements for their child or children in respect of their education, they can apply to court for a Specific Issue Order, and the court can address the issue of whether or not a child should remain at their current school or move to the other preferred school (in this case home schooling).

The court application

In the above scenario, if the other parent is strongly opposed to the change of school or home schooling, then they could apply to the court for a Prohibited Steps Order, which is an order that limits when certain rights and duties which can be exercised, such as making decisions about their education.

The court will consider the parents’ opinions and the best interests of the children. The children’s educational development, efficient home schooling techniques and underlying health issues in the family are some of the matters that will be considered by the court when deciding the issue.

Before making an application to the court,  it is expected that parents should try and resolve matters as best they can. Parents might wish to engage in negotiation through solicitors, mediation or arbitration before either one makes an application to the court.

The child’s welfare is the court’s paramount consideration. If you are faced with a request from the other parent to consider moving your child’s school, it is best to take a pragmatic approach and decide as to whether you are simply opposed to the idea in general or whether you could perhaps identify some advantages to the move. With the court considering what is in the child’s best interest, is therefore important for you to do your own research and have the necessary information to inform your decision/position.

Given that children returning to school is imminent – some may have already started the new term – a parent may struggle to get an urgent court hearing, although it may be that the court fixes a date as soon as it can. In the interim, without an order or decision you will need to keep open communication with the other parent.

If you are unsure about what to do in relation to arrangements for your children, we would advise you to seek specialist independent legal advice from an experienced family lawyer. Please do get in touch today. We’re here to help you.

Love and marriage – the return

Love and marriage – the return

We’ve had such a great response to our previous Love and Marriage blogs that we thought we’d add some more quotes to our special selection of celebrity words of wisdom about love, relationships and marriage.

Because there’s no doubt that on this topic everyone has their own opinion: some have their own personal deal-breakers, some know for certain the one thing that will melt their heart – and a lot of people will tell you it takes hard work and commitment.

See if you agree!

Fiona Shaw

“I’m married to a very unusual person, but maybe it took a very unusual person to be willing to marry me.”  Fiona Shaw

 

 

marriage quotes

“There are people you have mad passionate affairs with and people who you marry. Marriage is finding somebody who you can raise a family with, grow old with and who you want to come home to.” Hermione Norris

 

 

Celebrities Visit BuzzFeed's "AM To DM" - October 15, 2019

“Marriage is like a graph – it has its ups and downs and as long as things bounce back up again, you’ve got a good marriage. If it heads straight down, then you’ve got some problems!” Dame Julie Andrews

 

 

Gwyneth Paltrow

“I asked my dad once: ‘How did you and Mum stay married for 33 years?’ and he said ‘Well, we never wanted to get divorced at the same time.’”  Gwyneth Paltrow

 

 

Will Ferrell - Rotten Tomatoes

“Before you marry a person, you should first make them use a computer with slow internet to see who they really are.” Will Ferrell

 

 

Mickey Rooney

“Always get married in the morning. That way if it doesn’t work out, you haven’t wasted the whole day.” Mickey Rooney (married eight times)

How to have a happy holiday when you’re separated parents

How to have a happy holiday when you’re separated parents

This year more than most, the summer holidays for separated parents can be a difficult and confusing period. Trying to agree if one or both of the parents should be able to spend time abroad with the children can prove to be a tricky subject.

Associate Melissa Jones examines the issues.

Any difficulties in the relationship may well be those of the parents, but it is the children who can reluctantly find themselves in the midst of adult arguments, confused that those to whom they look for guidance are not getting along and often incorrectly blaming themselves for either parents’ upset or even anger. It is easy and perhaps natural for a parent going through such a difficult time to concentrate on themselves at these times, but it is very important if trying to sort arrangements out amicably, not to lose focus of a child’s needs or emotional well-being when they may already be feeling overwhelmed and trying to understand why their parents might not be friends, as well as distress and confusion about their new family circumstances.

The child’s best interests

If charged with deciding, the court will determine matters in accordance with what is in a child’s best interests. As such, and even if it is not what you want to hear personally, try to listen to your children. They may well help you in taking a step back from your own bubble and decide what’s best for them.

Open lines of communication

Good forward planning and open lines of communication with the other parent are essential when working towards organise your children’s summer holiday. Despite past difficulties, there are families who are able to work together to the extent that they can spend a summer break together, although sadly this is not the usual situation. However, regardless of whether you and your former partner are on good terms or not, taking time to come to a mutual decision about what’s best is without doubt the best way forward: from agreeing a safe destination that both parents are happy with to arranging how and where the children are going to spend time with each of their parents over the holiday period, it is by maintaining these open lines of communication that you will achieve a good outcome.

We have seen arrangements agreed where the separated parents have both gone to the same resort or holiday area, and the children have spent one or two weeks with one parent and then spent another week or two with the other parent, meaning that travel arrangements are simplified and there is the smallest amount of disruption possible.

It isn’t easy but it needn’t be difficult either. A little bit of willingness to accommodate the other parent’s request – when they can get time off from work, or if there is a holiday home owned by relatives and can you take a break in the same region to make things easier – can go a long way. Here are McAlister Family Law we encourage our clients not just to try to achieve a respectful divorce, but to remain respectful of one another in the years after that divorce. If you can each try to give a little in order to reach an agreement that will suit everyone involved, particularly your children, in the long run you will be glad you did so.

If you are affected by any of the issues outlined here, please get in touch today. We are here to help you.

Do I need my ex’s permission to take my children on holiday?

permission to take children on holiday

Do I need my ex's permission to take my children on holiday?

The schools are breaking up now for the summer, and as certain travel restrictions are being lifted, for some of us that may mean the excitement of travelling abroad on holiday.  But if you are separated from your child’s other parent, this can bring issues which need to be addressed with your ex-partner prior to any trip away, particularly if you’re considering holidaying in what is currently deemed to be an “amber” country.

Associate Therasa Kenny explains.

If there is an Order in place, usually a Child Arrangements Order (formerly a Residence Order) then a child can be taken abroad for up to a month without needing the written consent of the other parent.

Parental Responsibility

If there is not a court order in place, what first needs to be considered is whether you have parental responsibility.  If both parents share parental responsibility, then what is often overlooked is that you will need to get written consent from the other parent in order to take your child out of the United Kingdom (Section 13 (2) of the Children Act 1989).  Failing to do so could lead to you committing an offence of abduction for which you can be fined, imprisoned or both.

Should consent be unreasonably withheld, then an application to Court can be made.  The Judge will take into account the individual circumstances of each family, and if permission is given (which it often is) then specific travel details will need to be provided.  These will include the dates of travel, address details for where the child will be staying and any flight numbers.

The Court rarely denies permission to take a child on holiday abroad where there is an existing relationship between the parent and child and the plans are reasonable in all of the circumstances. Where they do, it is usually in circumstances where the plans are patently not in the child’s best interests or where the Court deems the child may not be returned to the country.

The child’s best interests

If only the mother has parental responsibility, and again there are no Court orders in place, then permission is not necessarily needed to take a child abroad on holiday.  That being said, and with your child’s best interests at heart, consultation should always take place with the other parent (if they are in regular contact with the child) in order to reach an agreement that is right for everyone.   As a father without parental responsibility, should you not agree to your child being taken abroad, you can apply to the Court for a Parental Responsibility Order and a Prohibited Steps Order to prevent the trip.

What if my children’s grandparents want to take them abroad on holiday?

Should other members of the family, such as a grandparent, wish to take a child abroad, then it is worth noting that permission will be needed from both parents who have parental responsibility, and not just from one.  Again, it’s really helpful if you can maintain good relationships with everyone in your extended family, but if that isn’t the case, then we recommend getting good legal advice well in advance of any proposed trip.

What if my child has a surname different from my own?

You also need to be aware that customs officers may insist on extra checks where a child is travelling with somebody who has a different surname to them. In these circumstances and in order to avoid any hold ups, it is always useful to take additional documents to the airport with you which can help to verify your child’s connection to you, such as the child’s birth certificate (which may provide the details of both parents’ surnames) and/or your marriage certificate (which will show the surnames before the marriage) and any existing court order and so on.

Open lines of communication

What is important is communication, and trying to agree any travel arrangements between you and the other parent in advance.  This is not always possible, but if it can be achieved, it will avoid any applications to the court being necessary.

If you are affected by any of the issues raised here, please get in touch today. We are here to help.

Civil partnerships – the dissolution process

civil partnership dissolution

Civil Partnerships – the dissolution process

What is a Civil Partnership? Initially introduced by the Civil Partnership Act 2004, civil partnerships were devised to provide a relationship status for same sex couples akin to, but different, to a marriage, which was not available to same sex couples until 2014.

(Civil Partnerships have since been made available to heterosexual couples as of 31st December 2019, pursuant to the Supreme Court ruling in favour of Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan.)

Associate Aaron Williams explains the civil partnership dissolution process.

A civil partnership is formed once both individuals, both of whom are at least are 16 years of age, have signed the civil partnership document in the presence of a registrar and two witnesses. Unlike a marriage at civil ceremonies readings, songs or music cannot have any religious connotations, e.g. readings from the bible or hymns etc.

The differences between a civil partnership and marriage are nominal, but small differences do exist:

  • Civil partners cannot call themselves ‘married’ for legal purposes
  • A marriage is ended with divorce by obtaining a decree absolute, while a civil partnership is ended with dissolution by obtaining a dissolution order
  • Adultery is not a valid reason to dissolve a civil partnership, but it can be used to divorce

Despite the small differences, legally speaking a civil partnership broadly confers the same rights to civil partners, when concerning the laws that govern wills, administration of estates and tax exemptions.

Dissolution of Civil Partnership

Should you come to the difficult decision that the relationship is over, and you legally wish to end your civil partnership, an application will need to be made to court for a dissolution order. To apply for a dissolution order, the civil partnership must have been in place for a minimum period of one year.

Much like the divorce process, until the implementation of the no-fault divorce process in April 2022, the court work on a fault-based system. To start the dissolution process, you will need to prove to the court that the civil partnership has ‘irretrievably broken down’ and that there is no prospect of reconciliation; to prove this one of four facts need to be established, these facts are:

  • Unreasonable behaviour – Your civil partner has behaved in such a way that you cannot reasonably be expected to live with them (whilst adultery in of itself cannot be cited as a fact for the parties’ separation in of itself as in divorce proceedings, it can be cited as an example of unreasonable behaviour)
  • two years’ separation and consent – You and your civil partner have ‘lived apart’ for a continuous period of at least two years prior to the presentation of the dissolution petition and your partner agrees to the dissolution being granted
  • two years’ desertion – Your civil partner has deserted you for a continuous period of at least two years immediately proceedings the dissolution petition, and
  • five years’ separation – You and your civil partner have lived apart for a continuous period of at least five years prior to the presentation of the dissolution petition (civil partner’s consent not required).

Dissolution Process – the timeline

  • Preparation of Dissolution papers – You as the civil partner who lodges the petition (known as the petitioner), will be required to particularise within the dissolution petition how the Civil Partnership has ‘irretrievably broken down’, using one of the facts detailed above. The paper will then need to be forwarded to Court with the requisite Court fee.

If completed correctly the Court will ‘issue’ the petition and send a copy to your civil partner who will be referred to as Respondent going forward.

  • Acknowledgement of Service – Your civil partner will receive a copy of the Dissolution Petition, together with a copy of a form known as an Acknowledgement of Service. The document needs to be completed within seven days of receipt, wherein they confirm receipt of the dissolution papers and confirm whether they seek to contest the dissolution petition or not.

Should your civil partner seek to contest the dissolution, they will have a further 21 days to file an ‘Answer’ to the Court, detailing why they do not agree to the dissolution.

  • Confirming the Petition – The next stage in the process is for the petitioner to sign a statement of truth, confirming that the circumstances remain the same and that they do not wish to alter the content of their petition. This is then filed with the Court with a request that the Conditional Order is pronounced.
  • Conditional Order – The second stage in the dissolution process (Decree Nisi in divorce), if the dissolution petition is uncontested by your civil partner, the Court will consider the content of the papers filed by parties and will confirm whether it is satisfied the reasons cited within the dissolution petition are sufficient for the dissolution to be granted. If approved, any financial order can now be implemented. It does not mean that the civil partnership has been dissolved at this point.
  • Final Order – six weeks and one day after the date of the Conditional Order the petitioner can apply for the ‘final order’ which is the document that will ultimately bring the civil partnership to an end. Should the petitioner not apply, within three months after this time period has elapsed (total four and a half months) then the Respondent can apply to court for the Final Order to be made.

The process in total should take approximately four to six months to complete, however, this is dependent on a multitude of elements, including, whether the dissolution is agreed, how promptly parties complete and file documents and the Court’s availability.

If there are any disagreements between parties regarding any financial settlement, then it can result in further delays until any ultimate settlement is agreed.

Dissolution – Finances

As with married couples, upon separation any dispute between civil partners as to the title or possession of property either partner may apply to Court to reach a settlement. The Court’s principle aim is to reach a fair settlement upon consideration of each parties’ needs and resources. When settling assets, the Court will look to equally split the assets, unless convinced by either party that a departure from equality in their favour is justified.

The Court can make several orders to settle the finances which are principally as follows:

  • A sale of a property, a transfer to one person, or put it into a trust
  • A lump sum (whole or in instalments) or a series of lump sums, eg to pay off a mortgage
  • Typically, in scenarios where there is income inequality between the parties, it can order one party to pay maintenance to the other either for the rest of their joint lives, until the recipient remarries, or for a fixed period.
  • It can order money for school fees etc but not usually for general child maintenance
  • It can order that a pension be shared or attached. Sharing is where funds are transferred or split between the parties; attachment is like maintenance direct from a pension but can also be a lump sum.

If you are affected by any of the issues outlined here, please do get in touch today. We are here to help.

The Role of Cafcass

role of cafcass

The role of Cafcass

When your child is subject to family proceedings, there may be a barrage of different voices and perspectives: from parents, their legal representatives, and even the wider family. Unfortunately – and unintentionally – it is all too easy for the bigger picture to become blurred, and this is where Cafcass (the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service) will step in. But who is Cafcass, what is its role, and why is it involved? Family law paralegal Georgia Smith explains.

Who is Cafcass?

The Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service, or Cafcass, is an independent organisation whose primary role is to represent the interests of children. Cafcass can become involved in private law child arrangements proceedings, where separated parents are unable to agree on arrangements, or in public law applications brought by social services, where there are concerns about the welfare of a child.

What is the role of Cafcass in Private Law Proceedings?

Upon filing an application with the Court, the case will be referred to Cafcass, which will initially write to both parents to explain its role within proceedings and inform them of their allocated case worker.

Cafcass will then carry out safeguarding checks. This will include contacting the police and the local authority, to ascertain if any of the parents are known to them, and if there are any known welfare or safety risks to the child(ren).

Cafcass will then schedule a telephone interview with each parent. Although this may seem daunting, the case worker will speak to each parent individually, with a view to discovering any concerns that  they may have about the welfare and safety of their child(ren). It is imperative that parents are open, honest and remain child-focused. After all, Cafcass are working towards a fair resolution, with the child(ren)’s best interests at the forefront of their consideration.

Following this, a safeguarding letter will be prepared and sent to the Court. This report will detail the outcome of the safeguarding checks and any issues raised by the parents during the telephone interviews. The safeguarding letter will normally be made available to the parents, their solicitors and the Court, at least three days before the first hearing.

The role of the Cafcass worker is to work with both parents to reach a mutual agreement that is in their child(ren)’s best interests. If at the first court hearing it is apparent that  the parents are unable to reach an agreement and there remains welfare concerns raised by one of the parents, then the Court may direct that Cafcass prepare a Section 7 report.

This report will primarily focus on the welfare of  the child(ren) and is prepared for the Court in accordance with the welfare checklist contained within Section 1 of the Children Act 1989. A range of factors are taken into consideration, including:

* the ascertainable wishes and feelings of the child concerned (considered in the light of the child’s 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 parents, and any other person who the court considers the question to be relevant, is of meeting the child’s needs

* the range of powers available to the court in the proceedings.

Dependant on the age and maturity of the child(ren), Cafcass may speak with them to ascertain their wishes and feelings. Although Cafcass is often referred to as the ‘voice of the child’, they may consider that the child’s view is not in their best interests, so it is important for parents to understand that a child’s opinion may not always be decisive and attempts should not be made to influence their wishes.

Upon receipt of the Section 7 report, each parent should expect their solicitor to analyse the report in detail. Cafcass will make recommendations to the Court and usually the Judge will not depart from these recommendations without persuasive evidence to the contrary.

That being said, the report is not always considered determinative and of course, the recommendations can be challenged. Experienced children solicitors understand that family relations are complex and often assumptions can be made on limited information. It is therefore essential that parents work with their solicitor, and Cafcass, to reduce the issues in dispute and focus on the best interests of  their child(ren).

If you are affected by any of the issues outlined here, please do get in touch today. We are here to help.

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