For many co-parents, one of the most challenging aspects of separated parenting is when one parent does not choose to spend as much time with their child as the other parent thinks they ought to. In some cases, a parent may not see their child at all, whether through choice or circumstance.
The short answer to the question of whether a parent can be forced to spend time with their child, which I know will be disappointing for a lot of parents, is no. If a parent will not spend time with their child, then they cannot be forced to do so. The courts are not prepared to make orders forcing contact, and it is difficult to see if and how such an order could be enforced, or whether such an order would be beneficial or productive.
It is worth remembering that even if one parent chooses not to see their child, they will still have a responsibility to make child maintenance payments and an application can be made to the Child Maintenance Service if it cannot be agreed directly.
However, where there is already an arrangement in place, by virtue of agreement or a court order, if the arrangement falters, there are steps that can be taken.
There will inevitably be circumstances in which contact does not take place for a period. For example, illness, holidays, or other life circumstances. Where the change to the contact arrangement is tackled in a way that is sensitive to a child’s needs and courteous to the other parent, this need not be a major issue.
However, in circumstances where the withdrawal from contact/the relationship is for a prolonged period or comes suddenly with no explanation, it can leave children feeling let down, confused and as if they are not a priority.
It can also be distressing for the parent trying to facilitate the contact to see their child upset, and they may feel their efforts are not appreciated, leading to further breakdown in the relationship between the parents. In such circumstances it may be more appropriate to look at how contact is structured and assess whether a different arrangement might benefit the child and promote contact, allowing for greater consistency.
There are many process options available for these discussions. For example, this could be addressed directly with the other parent, at mediation, by instructing a solicitor or, if all else fails, by making an application to the court:
- What level is contact set at? The court will bear in mind what is going to be achievable for parents and children. A parent who struggles to maintain a relationship with very regular contact sessions might be able to achieve less frequent contact, but if that contact is better quality – or actually takes place rather than being cancelled – it could be better for the child involved.
- By what means is contact taking place? The parent-child relationship may be better maintained by means other than direct face-to-face contact time. Telephone or video calls could bridge the gap, or a parent in difficult circumstances might be able to accommodate those where spending time together in person simply isn’t possible.
For children who might have faced disappointment in the past through repeated or last-minute cancellations, calls or letters might fit more easily into their existing routine and limit the disruption they face, while still maintaining a relationship with the parent they don’t live with.
The age and capability of a child, as well as the effect and perception of any previous issues with contact, are important factors to consider. What suits one child and promotes positive contact in a particular set of circumstances may not be suitable for another child or another set of circumstances.
If all else fails, the threat that future contact could be reduced can be a ‘stick rather than carrot’ approach to ensuring contact does go ahead. The court can threaten to or even actually reduce contact, sometimes quite significantly, if it is apparent such a change is in the best interests of the child in question. However, it would be exceedingly rare to have an order for no contact at all: the court tends to leave a door open for a parent/child relationship to continue except in the most severe of circumstances.
If you have questions about any aspects of child arrangements, whatever your situation, please do feel free to get in touch so one of the team of family law experts at Furley Page can help.
Contact Megan Bennie, Associate Solicitor in Furley Page’s family law team on 01227 763939 or email MEB@furleypage.co.uk.
About Megan Bennie
Megan Bennie is an Associate in the family law team Furley Page.
Megan joined the team in 2021, having gained valuable previous experience at specialist family law firms featured in the Legal 500 directory.
Megan advises on all aspects of relationship breakdown, whether divorce or separation, including in relation to civil partnerships, dealing with issues such as the appropriate division of finances.
Megan also assists couples seeking to formalise arrangements through pre and post nuptial agreements and cohabitation (or living together) agreements. She can also assist with legal issues arising when cohabitation comes to an end whether there is a cohabitation agreement in place or not.
Megan can provide legal advice on a wide range of areas relating to children including arrangements for contact and who a child lives with, where a child lives (including relocation to another jurisdiction) and in relation to special guardianship and adoption.
Megan is primarily based at the Chatham office but is also available for meetings at either the Canterbury or Whitstable office.