By Claire Edgar, Associate, Francis Hanna and Co.
Separation following relationship breakdown can be a very painful time for the adults involved, but it can be even more so for children. Children within the family are often innocent and confused casualties of the breakdown of a relationship. Many parents are able to agree between themselves a number of arrangements for their children which enable them to continue to enjoy a relationship with both parents.
For many other families contact arrangements cannot be agreed. Some parents choose to engage in mediation as a means of trying to negotiate a satisfactory solution in the best interests of their children; for other families where mediation is not suitable or has proved unsuccessful an application can be made to family courts to resolve their differences.
In any proceedings of this nature before the court, which is known as the family proceedings court, the child’s best interests are the primary concern. This means that the main focus will always be on the welfare of the child first, rather than the rights of either parent. In proceedings, it is a commonly held view that (if safe and appropriate) a child should enjoy a relationship with both parents.
The family proceedings court consists of one Resident Magistrate, who provides the role of chairperson and two Lay Magistrates, at least one of the Lay Magistrates sitting on the case will be a female. It is highly improbable that the court will deal with the case during one sitting, and usually a timetable for the case will be determined at a directions hearing. The directions within this hearing, will take the form of instructions from the court regarding what the parties and their legal representatives should do in preparation for the subsequent hearing. There will be an opportunity for parties to engage in negotiations at this stage with a view to at least agreeing interim contact.
Each family is a unique group of individuals and in considering an application for contact, the court will look at the individual and unique circumstances of the child and family in question. Contact arrangements will differ depending on the circumstances of each family.
The views and the feelings of the child involved are also taken into account and a court children’s officer may be asked to speak with the children to try to ascertain what these are. How much weight is given to a particular child’s wishes will depend upon the age and understanding of that child: for example the views of a 12-year-old child would weigh more heavily in influencing decisions than those of a four-year-old child. Additionally a child will not be forced to have contact with someone they are afraid of or who harms them in any way.
Contact Orders are Orders from the court which set out the arrangements of visitations between parents and other relatives with the child or children in question. Contact arrangements can vary with cases and therefore there are many different Contact Orders which a court could make from “indirect contact” (such as the exchange of letters, cards and e-mails between parent and child with no regular visits) to overnight and holiday contact. Contact can also be supervised in cases where the court directs that a relative or social worker must be present during visits. In Northern Ireland there are a number of contact centres which are neutral community venues with facilities to enable children to develop and maintain positive relationships with non-resident parents.
In most cases Orders are made by agreement between the parents with the help of their legal advisors; this is the most preferable method, as Orders which are made with the consent of both parents are much more likely to be successful in workability in the future and reducing antagonism between the parties that are involved.
When seeking a solicitor to deal with this particular kind of case, it is important that you look for not only legal representation and good negotiation skills but a good deal more. Your solicitor should be understanding and be capable of supporting mothers and fathers through this difficult period in life whilst progressing towards a workable arrangement which is in the child’s best interests.