As a specialist children solicitor I find that July and August are busy months for me in helping parents resolve disputes over the arrangements for their children, normally over where the children should live or where they should go to school. The question is often is it Cheshire or the South? , is it England or foreign climes? or is it the local state junior school or a preparatory? If parents can’t agree on where their children should live or on the type of schooling or on the specific school then these questions have to be decided by a judge.
The Court normally tries to be very accommodating in deciding these questions before the child’s return to school deadline in September and so will try to squeeze in Court hearings in July and August. This only works when Court applications are made early enough for reports from children and family Court officers to be available in time for the final family Court hearing. Where a move abroad is contemplated timeframes can be even tighter as, for example, in many states in the USA the new school term starts in August.
Many parents don’t realise just how much preparation goes into a Court application, whether it is an application to change a child’s school or to move within the UK or abroad. When legal advice is first sought , as well as looking at options for compromise and agreement, it is also vital to look at the ‘homework’ that needs to be carried out by either mum or dad to give their Court application the best chance of success.
The type of preparation work needed depends on what the Court is being asked to decide but can involve presenting a well-researched case for what home life will be like in a foreign country or providing reports for competing state or private schools.
Whatever issue a judge is asked to adjudicate on the Court has to look at a range of factors, known as the ‘welfare checklist’ when giving judgment. My role as a parent’s advocate is to make sure that all those factors are considered when first giving advice so the ‘homework’ list can be agreed and the work shared between parent client and solicitor. Working as a team and agreeing on the division of work is crucial in making an effective Court application.
One of the factors that a judge has to consider is the child’s wishes and feelings but the amount of sway the child’s views has on the Court will depend on the child’s age and level of understanding. It can be tempting to a parent to talk to their child about the Court proceedings but in my experience, that is often counterproductive. In many situations, a judge will order a report from an independent social worker, a children and family Court officer, and they will talk to a child about what they want to happen. These types of reports can be limited to just independently looking at the child’s wishes or can, at the judge’s request, also look at all the factors the Court has to consider and give a recommendation. I have read many reports that faithfully report what has been said by children, including the phrase ‘ my mummy/daddy thinks …..’ or the child using language beyond their years to reportedly express their views. As the children and family Court officer report is highly influential it is vital that the child’s views don’t appear to be influenced by either parents’ views or by adult considerations.
Helping parents resolve parenting childcare arrangements in time for back to school can be a challenge especially as for many parents there can be no compromise or middle ground where the issue is whether a child moves abroad with one parent or goes into private education or not. The key is to get early legal advice to get an honest opinion on options and likely outcomes so that the September back to school goes as smoothly as possible in the mayhem of buying new school uniforms and organising the essential back to school paraphernalia of lunchboxes and the latest style rucksack.
For advice on any aspect of family law please contact me on +44 (0)1625728012 or by email at [email protected].