The Children Act 1989 says that the child’s welfare is the most important consideration. The old word ‘access’ has been replaced by contact. This can refer to contact by letter, phone and actual visits. ‘Custody’ has been replaced by residence. The Act describes parental responsibility rather than parents’ rights. If you were married when the child was born, both of you will have parental responsibility for the child. A father who was not married to the child’s mother when the child was born, will not automatically have parental responsibility for that child, but can acquire it by agreement with the child’s mother or by applying to the court. He can also acquire it by marrying the child’s mother after the birth.
A parent has financial responsibility for the child until he reaches the age of 17 or leaves full-time education, whichever is the later. There is no end to providing financial support between parents and children. This is the law. A child’s father (or mother) is obliged to pay for this support whether or not there is any contact between him and his child.
Going to Court
In order to get the Court to intervene one party has to complete a form (currently C100 and C1A if applicable), pay a fee and specifically ask the court to decide on matters in relation to the children.
Matters relating to children can be brought before a Court at any time and nothing is final because the Courts will always decide any particular issue on the basis of what is in the particular child’s best interests at that particular time.
Applications to Court
When the Court receives the application it will send a copy of the application to the respondent (the person who would oppose the application). It will also send a notice of a “Directions Hearing” which is an appointment at which the parties are expected to attend and at which the Court will decide what steps need to be carried out before the case is heard fully by a Judge.
CAFCASS and the Court Welfare Report
In most courts, it is a matter of routine for the parties to meet with a CAFCASS Officer (CAFCASS stands for Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service, who are an independent body who attempt to assist in reaching agreement about children and who advise the Court). The meeting is confidential and is to see if agreement can be reached. If not, then the “Directions Hearing” is held when the Court considers what should be done next. This is normally quite informal and the Judge will simply be trying to establish what the issues are. In the majority of cases the Court will order each party to file a statement within a specified period of time. These statements will set out the history of the matter, explain what each party wants from the Court and why.
It is normal practice for the Judge to also request a CAFCASS (court welfare) report. This can be a lengthy document and is only drawn up after he meets the parents and children. He can also check whether their schools, doctors, social service or police have any concerns. The CAFCASS Officer will be given all the Court papers and meet with all the relevant parties including the children. They will then prepare and file a CAFCASS report with the Court.
The CAFCASS Court Welfare Report is very important as the court attaches great weight to it. Although it has the power to depart from the recommendations it will only do so if there is good reason. In practice most reports will recommend that the children see both parents on a regular basis.
If no agreement is reached, a hearing would be arranged for perhaps three to six months later and the Judge would then deliver his decision which is often in agreement with the welfare report’s recommendations. He could also delay his decision for a further period of time and order another hearing in the hope of agreement.