Proposals to enable children to see both their parents are launched
Plans to strengthen the law so children continue to see both parents if they separate have been put forward by ministers today.
The Government believes that where it is safe and in the child’s best interest, the law should make it clearer that children benefit from having both parents actively involved in their lives, with both sharing responsibility in decisions about their upbringing.
The majority of parents who separate reach their own agreements for their children. However, Ministers are concerned that when disputes arise one of the first things that can be overlooked is ensuring children have a strong relationship with both parents.
Children’s Minister Tim Loughton said:
Our starting point is that we want most parents to resolve disputes out of court, wherever possible - that’s why we are investing in and promoting family mediation services and other support to help parents reach agreements in their child’s best interests.
But we must improve the system where court cannot be avoided – where disputes are intractable or complex or children’s welfare is at risk.
We need to clarify and restore public confidence that the courts fully recognise the joint nature of parenting. We want the law to be far more explicit about the importance of children having an ongoing relationship with both their parents after separation, where that is safe and in the child's best interests.
Where parents are able and willing to play a positive role in their child’s care, they should have the chance to do so. This is categorically not about giving parents equal right to time with their children – it is about reinforcing society’s expectation that mothers and fathers should be jointly responsible for their children’s upbringing.
Current legislation sets out the clear principle that a child’s welfare is always paramount in any family court decision about their future. But the benefit of ongoing involvement with both parents is not explicitly stated in law – although it is factored into decisions.
Ministers believe this creates a perception the law does not fully recognise both parents’ roles and there is an inbuilt bias towards one or other parent.
Today’s consultation sets out four options for amending the Children Act 1989 to enshrine shared parenting in law. Ministers believe this will encourage more separated parents to resolve disputes out of court and agree care arrangements that fully involve them both.
The proposals make clear that any change is categorically not about equality in time that a child spends with each parent after separation. They state explicitly, there is no intention that equal time, or indeed, any prescribed notion of an ‘appropriate’ division of time, should be the starting point of a court’s consideration.
The consultation also asks how to toughen sanctions to enforce breaches of court orders regarding care arrangements – including, where there is a wilful refusal to comply with the court, short-term punitive action to protect the longer-term interests of the child.
The existing sanctions of a fine or imprisonment for contempt of court, or an order to undertake unpaid work, are not often used. The Government is considering extending these sanctions to reinforce the message that court orders are not the starting point in negotiations but are the court's considered decision about what is best for the child and must be abided by. This plan was first proposed in February – as part of the Government’s response to the independent Family Justice Review Panel.