Jemima Lewis has written in today’s Telegraph about the role of fathers in families. She refers to recent articles about Mohamed El-Erian, the high-flying economist who has chosen to reduce his working hours in order to spend more time with his daughter.
Ms Lewis speaks positively about the many fathers today who choose to have a high level of involvement in their children’s lives.Maintaining this level of involvement can, however, become more challenging when families separate. Although there are a number of cases in which children reside with their father following separation, it still seems that in the vast majority of cases the children reside with their mother. However, a study last year found that 87% of fathers surveyed who didn’t live with their children continued to have contact with them.
Many families make arrangements between themselves without involving solicitors or the courts. These arrangements can allow fathers to stay fully involved in their children’s lives even if they don’t live with them. Sometimes, however, non-resident fathers (or, of course, non-resident mothers) can feel that they are not having as much involvement as they would like.
Parents with parental responsibilities and rights have the right to maintain involvement with their children’s school as well as with health professionals such as doctors and dentists. Beyond this, parents may wish to have more practical involvement by seeing their children on a regular basis, something that lawyers refer to as having “contact”.
If parents are struggling to agree contact arrangements, there are steps which can be taken to re-establish, increase or indeed, where necessary, decrease contact. Family lawyers specialise in working with parents to find solutions in these situations.
It is important to realise that instructing a lawyer doesn’t mean that you are immediately entering a world of costly, aggressive court battles. These days, the majority of family lawyers strive to keep cases out of court unless court involvement is absolutely necessary. Parents usually agree that they would rather make the decisions about what is best for their children than let a Sheriff make those decisions. Lawyers will seek to keep the matter out of court by pointing the parents towards other ways of resolving problems, such as discussing matters between themselves, instructing their lawyers to negotiate on their behalves, attending mediation or using the collaborative process.
Should parents be unable to agree residence or contact arrangements, a specialist family arbitrator can be appointed by agreement to decide what is best for the children concerned. If there is no agreement to arbitrate then the final option is to bring the matter to court. Either parent can apply to the court for a residence order or a contact order. These orders can specify which parent the child/children should live with and/or can specify the exact days and times that contact will take place. The order can also specify where “handovers” will take place and who will be involved. The court will go into as much detail as necessary to enable the contact to take place successfully. The order is binding on both parties and if either party fails to abide by its terms they can be found in contempt of court.
It is important for parents to seek legal advice early if they experience difficulties with the arrangements for their children after separation. Getting legal advice shouldn’t be seen as the first step towards courts and battles but rather as an important way for parents to obtain the information necessary to consider the best options for their situation.