The term “co-parenting” was coined in 2014 with the advent of the amendments to the Children Act 1989 as well as the myriad court “reforms” of the time. Almost six years later, I would suggest that the inclusion of this term has had some unintended consequences.
I think most family lawyers and their clients would agree that there has been a generally welcomed movement towards using collaboration or alternative dispute resolution models to help willing parties achieve this new ideal of “conscious uncoupling”. But what happens when the ideal isn’t achievable, practical or in the children’s best interests?
Prior to the reforms, it could be the case that a dispute over who a child would live with and when they would spend time with the other, non-resident parent could literally take years, even where the issues in the case were not what one would consider particularly complex – just different parents with different ideas as to what is their child’s best interest, usually coupled with some minor welfare concerns over diet or engagement with the child and the non-resident parent’s ability to put the child’s interests first. Now such cases take about three months from start to finish, sometimes less. There is little investigation into whether a parent’s concerns are legitimate welfare concerns affecting the child or are simply seated in a personal grievance related to the relationship history. And the use of Cafcass (Children and Family Court Advisory Support Service) to support the Court in any investigation into a child’s needs and welfare concerns beyond mere public record checks is rare, even when such involvement is requested by a concerned a parent (whereas it was previously fairly routine). There is little chance of one showing one’s spots with proceedings moving at a rate of knots, to speak colloquially, and it is now far more often than not that the parent wishing to protect their child from what that parent views as neglectful, negative or sometimes abusive behaviour from the other parent is actually seen to be potential purveyor of the effects on the child the alleging parent is seeking to avoid.
Sadly, there is often tit-for-tat in these proceedings, which is not helpful in moving either the parties or the child(ren) forward but much of this could be avoided if all involved were able to truly remain child-focused, rather than with an eye to what the adult/parent wants or the time and resources of the court perceptually being better served elsewhere.
In remaining child-focused, both parents would often do well to remove what could easily be termed “rose-coloured parenting glasses”. It is impractical to think and, in most circumstances, quite improbable that either parent is going to substantively change who they are or the manner in which they interact with their child(ren). The location, frequency or type of interaction may change but the depth or manner will not. By this I mean that one parent should not hold the other parent to a different (and often higher) standard of parenting simply because the parents’ relationship has broken down. Similarly, where a parent was not, for all intents and purposes, the “primary carer” of the child(ren) during the relationship it would follow that it is not likely to be practical or probable that they will be simply able to step into a role equal to that of primary carer simply by virtue of the fact that the adults are separating. One must give reasoned consideration to how things like school and activities pick-ups/drop-offs; schedule management (work, school, extracurriculars, social engagements for the child, social engagements for the parent, outings, travel, etc); the child(ren)’s routines (mealtimes, any nap times, bedtimes, etc.) will all work between the separate houses and the level of constructive and open communication these will require between the adults for the benefit of the child(ren).
Increasingly, the knee-jerk reaction to a separation is a demand that there be “shared care” of the child(ren). This is also, sadly, often couched in terms of “equal housing provision” and becomes, quite wrongly, a weapon for obtaining a greater distribution of assets or to avoid or lessen maintenance obligations. It is thought of and dealt with in terms of “parental rights” rather than parental responsibility. Shared care does not mean a 50/50 or 7/7 split of time, and often, such a split when looking at the needs of the child(ren) is impractical and not sustainable. What shared care should mean, very simply, is shared responsibility for meeting the day-to-day and changing physical, educational, emotional and developmental needs of the child(ren).
Unfortunately, it has been the occasion of the court since the advent of the reforms to readily endorse equal or nearly equal care arrangements that begin to shortly unravel the moment they begin to be implemented, often causing further acrimony and expensive returns to court, not to mention the instability that this imparts on the child(ren). It can then be too late to change the impact of financial decisions on the child(ren) as well, causing further detriment. Sadly, it has also been the occasion of the court to seemingly “punish” a parent who won’t get on board with child arrangements proposals in the theory that ordering shared care with shared (but separate) residence of the child(ren) will induce a cooperative, co-parenting relationship.
There are methods and strategies one can use to provide a proper investigation into the interests and needs of the children and to implement any therapies that they may need to adjust and/or cope with the adult conflict. There are also services available to conflicted parents to help them co-parent more effectively and to agree an arrangement and/or a parenting plan for the benefit of the child(ren). For more information on these or assistance and advice on child arrangements matters, contact Chrissie Cuming Walters using the details below for a review of your position and how to move things forward.
This article is for general information purposes only and does not constitute legal or professional advice. It should not be used as a substitute for legal advice relating to your particular circumstances. Please note that the law may have changed since the date of this article.