It is natural and understandable that any parent contemplating divorce will worry about the effect on their children. And it is true that many children are bewildered, sad or angry when they hear that their parents are to divorce.
Some may refuse to accept that their parents will not get back together. Others may blame themselves for what has happened. It is also possible that a child may appear unaffected by what is happening, perhaps in an effort to protect their parents. Regardless of the history between the parents, it is vital that both focus on putting their children’s interests first.
As far as possible, this means presenting a united parenting front. It may be hard to do this when going through a divorce, particularly if the split is acrimonious. However, it is important to remember that children are not parties to the divorce and that their relationship with each parent will continue after the decree absolute. Furthermore, parents, even once divorced, will have an ongoing relationship as co-parents of their children. This can sometimes be difficult to accept. Counselling, whether undertaken together or individually, may help both parties move forwards in as positive a frame of mind as possible.
In England and Wales, the family law courts with responsibility for issuing divorces do not, as a matter of routine, make pronouncements on post-divorce arrangements affecting any children of the parties. Thanks to the “Statement of Arrangements for Children” form that must be submitted with the divorce petition, the court will be aware of the existence of any children. However, in the vast majority of cases, the court will only intervene in arrangements affecting those children if one of the parties asks it to do so. Moreover, in most divorce proceedings, there are other mechanisms that the parents should attempt first.
Some divorcing couples are able to co-parent in a calm and cooperative manner. Others may need a little help. A parenting plan can be an excellent first step for separating parents, and can even be a means of avoiding court-ordered arrangements.
Properly thought-out, a parenting plan is a written document that the parents work out between them. It covers the practical side of parenting, including, for example, where the children will live and where they will go to school. As such, it can be invaluable in ensuring both parents are on the same page.
A parenting plan is also useful if issues relating to the children later come to court because it will help the judge to see what the parents have agreed on and where they differ. Indeed, it is very likely that a judge will expect a couple to have attempted a parenting plan before coming to court, and good family law solicitors will point this out to their clients. The Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass), an independent organisation that represents children’s interests in family court cases, offers a sample downloadable parenting plan on its website. Its site also includes a helpful “summary of progress” where couples can note areas on which they have agreed and those on which they think they may need a court’s help.
Where a divorcing couple cannot agree on post-divorce arrangements for their children, mediation is the next logical step. Divorce lawyers in London and elsewhere can often refer a couple to independent and impartial mediators.
This can be a helpful way for a divorcing couple to determine arrangements for their children. As is usual, each party has their own lawyer but communications between each side are managed face to face in what are known as “four-way meetings” rather than by email, letter or telephone. Not all lawyers will be accustomed to offering collaborative law but it should be possible to find firms of divorce solicitors in London and across the country with enough relevant experience for interested parties to have a real choice of legal services providers. Collaborative law is also only suited to divorces where the parties remain on reasonably good terms. If one party does not trust the other then it is unlikely to work.
When it comes to determining post-divorce arrangements for children, going to court ought to be the last resort.
Not only is it the most expensive way of resolving matters, it is often contentious and can be upsetting for parents and children alike. Although it is possible to self-represent, anyone thinking of involving the courts should at least consider seeking legal advice. They should also expect the court to involve Cafcass in order to ensure that the children’s interests are properly protected. Questions that the court may rule on typically include residence (previously known as custody) and contact.
These can often be highly acrimonious and good legal advice can be very helpful. Parents, particularly fathers, sometimes feel that the court system is biased against them and consequently wish to seek out men’s divorce lawyers with particular experience in helping individuals in a similar situation. However, it is essential to understand that, at all times, the court will prioritise the child’s best interests. It is also important to realise that any court-ordered arrangements are legally binding and can only be altered by a return to court.