Disputes between parents about seeing their children

Can courts force parents out of intractable contact disputes?

This post looks at the law in cases following the parents separation, when the parents can’t agree about how the children should spend time with each of them. In cases where there is no evidence that contact with a non-resident parent would harm a child yet the resident parent claims contact would not be in the child’s best interests, can courts force parents out of their entrenched positions?

Sarah Phillimore, barrister at St John’s Chambers, looks at the issue and offers some practical advice.

This article was published by Lexis on 19th May 2015 –  you can get more articles like this from Lexis at this web address www.lexisnexis.com/uk/lexisps

 

To what extent can or will the courts intervene to force parties out of entrenched positions?

Statute Law

The relevant statutory framework is found at section 1(1) and 1(3) of the Children Act 1989 (CA 1989). The child’s welfare is the paramount consideration and the court must have regard to the welfare checklist.

Section 8 allows the court to make what used to be called ‘contact’ and ‘residence’ orders but which are now ‘child arrangements orders’ following the Children and Families Act 2014 (CFA 2014).

The CFA 2014 also amended section 1 of the CA 1989 to include that when a court is considering a section 8 order, it must presume, unless the contrary can be shown, that the involvement of a parent in the life of a child will further the child’s welfare. ‘Involvement’ quite explicitly is not linked to any particular division of a child’s time. This amendment is thus very far from what father’s rights campaigners wanted; there is no presumption that children must spend their time 50/50 with each parent. It is difficult to see what practical change is provided by this amendment, as it offers a rebuttable presumption that is a reflection of existing law and practice.

General principles from case law.

The following cases provide general principles:

Each case is unique on its own facts and requires careful scrutiny. However, there are general principles which are usually applicable to every case:

  • the court is concerned with the interests of the mother and the father only in so far as they bear on the welfare of the child.
  • It is almost always in the interests of a child whose parents are separated that he or she should have contact with the parent with whom the child is not living. Contact should thus be terminated only in exceptional circumstances.
  • The court has power to enforce orders for contact, which it should not hesitate to exercise where it judges that it will overall promote the welfare of the child to do so.
  • The state has positive obligations to protect the Article 8 rights of parents and children. Thus, the judge must grapple with all the available alternatives before abandoning hope of achieving some contact. He must be careful not to come to a premature decision, for contact is to be stopped only as a last resort and only once it has become clear that the child will not benefit from continuing the attempt.
  • There are rare cases where the court decides that there cannot be immediate direct contact because that would injure the child’s welfare, see Re D (A Minor) (Contact) [1993] 1 FCR 964 at pp 971G–972A per Waite, LJ.
  • If there cannot be immediate direct contact there should be indirect contact so that the child grows up knowing of the love and interest of the absent parent with whom, in due course, direct contact should be established
  • It is an important part of the obligations of being a parent that the parents take responsibility for making contact work – see paras 72 onwards of Re W [2012].

 

Potential problems with the courts’ approach.

In Re H-B (Contact) [2015] EWCA Civ 389, the court heard that direct contact with the father and his two daughters had stopped in 2008. There was an incident in which the father’s new wife had been angry with the older girl and grabbed her, causing a superficial injury. The father appealed against the refusal of his application for direct contact. Both parents were found to have behaved poorly.

The President of the Family Division considered the obligations upon parents when a child refuses contact with the other parent.  See paragraph 75:

the responsibility of being a parent can be tough, it may be ‘a very big ask’. But that is what parenting is all about. There are many things which they ought to do that children may not want to do or even refuse to do: going to the dentist, going to visit some ‘boring’ elderly relative, going to school, doing homework or sitting an examination, the list is endless. The parent’s job, exercising all their parental skills, techniques and stratagems – which may include use of both the carrot and the stick and, in the case of the older child, reason and argument –, is to get the child to do what it does not want to do. That the child’s refusal cannot as such be a justification for parental failure is clear: after all, children whose education or health is prejudiced by parental shortcomings may be taken away from their parents and put into public care.

  1. I appreciate that parenting headstrong or strong-willed teenagers can be particularly taxing, sometimes very tough and exceptionally demanding. And in relation to the parenting of teenagers no judge can safely overlook the teaching of Gillick v West Norfolk and Wisbech Area Health Authority and anor [1986] AC 112, in particular the speeches of Lord Fraser of Tullybelton and Lord Scarman. But parental responsibility does not shrivel away, merely because the child is 14 or even 16, nor does the parental obligation to take all reasonable steps to ensure that a child of that age does what it ought to be doing, and does not do what it ought not to be doing. I accept (see Cambra v Jones [2014] EWHC 2264 (Fam), paras 20, 25) that a parent should not resort to brute force in exercising parental responsibility in relation to a fractious teenager.  But what one can reasonably demand – not merely as a matter of law but also and much more fundamentally as a matter of natural parental obligation – is that the parent, by argument, persuasion, cajolement, blandishments, inducements, sanctions (for example, ‘grounding’ or the confiscation of mobile phones, computers or other electronic equipment) or threats falling short of brute force, or by a combination of them, does their level best to ensure compliance. That is what one would expect of a parent whose rebellious teenage child is foolishly refusing to do GCSEs or A-Levels or ‘dropping out’ into a life of drug-fuelled crime. Why should we expect any less of a parent whose rebellious teenage child is refusing to see her father?’ 

 

The ‘tough’ approach of the court cannot however be a a solution to the problem of intractable contact disputes, because it does not adequately or even at all address the following circumstances:

  • The increasing autonomy of the older child.
  • The resident parent who simply will not or can not support a relationship with the other parent.

The older child

For older children, the suggestions by the President that it is a straightforward matter of simply exercising a bit of parental muscle to bribe or compel a child, does not reflect the reality of the child’s growing autonomy. Various cases demonstrate that it is likely that the child will simply refuse to do what is expected and may even react in quite extreme ways to the expectation: see for e.g Re K (Children) [2014] EWCA Civ 1195 where the children simply ran away.

Of course, parental responsibility does not ‘shrivel away’ when dealing with a Gillick competent teenager, but as a child’s autonomy develops, the ability of a parent to impose his or her will inevitably decreases. A parent simply cannot dictate to a 15 year old as if he were 5 or even 10 years old. To do so is likely to be emotionally abusive and ineffective.

This is reflected in section 9(6) of the CA 1989; section 8 orders will only be made for children over 16 if the circumstances are ‘exceptional’.  In reality, many judges will be wary of imposing orders upon teenagers even younger than 16; recognizing that they can and do ‘vote with their feet’.

The parent with whom the child lives does not support contact

This second part of the problem is not even touched upon in re H-B; the mindset of the resident parent and the impact of this on the child. The likely reality in many cases is that the resident parent has consistently exposed the child to a very negative view of the absent parent. In terms of the impact of this on the child, it probably doesn’t matter what motivates the resident parent, be it genuine belief or something more malicious. The child will absorb the resident parent’s reality. What else can they do?

These problems are then further compounded if the child has not seen the absent parent for some time and/or was very young at the last meeting and therefore has little or no independent memory of the absent parent.

In such cases, experts consider it unlikely – even impossible – that a child living in such circumstances can start thinking positively about the absent parent. The resident parent will assert that it is simply not in the child’s best interests to have this positive view. It is not possible to force therapeutic work on an unwilling resident parent.

 

What can lawyers to either stop this happening or intervene positively when it does?

Unfortunately, it is my view that the ability of lawyers or the courts to have much positive impact on the more extreme examples of intractable dispute, is very limited. This is because these are not legal problems. They arise out of the psychological vulnerabilities of one or both of the parents.  Even if parents could be persuaded to go to family therapy or family mediation it is unlikely that many could afford to do this and no state agency can be compelled to pay. The court room is clearly a very unsuitable arena to try to deal with the often toxic emotional fall out from failed adult relationships.

However, there are elements to these proceedings that the lawyer can influence and the court can attempt to dictate, which may have a positive influence on the outcome – or at the very least reduce the time taken and the emotional and financial costs incurred. See further the judgment of Hedley J in re E (A Child) [2011] EWCH 3251 at paragraph 11 onwards and A (A Child) [2013] EWCA Civ 1104.

I suggest that the fundamental requirements are:

  • Careful analysis of the issues and the available options;
  • Which feeds into a realistic timetable, avoiding drift

Intractable contact disputes that go horribly wrong usually have dragged on over many years. This increases the child and the resident’s parent aversion to the whole process; they simply want it to end. Lawyers can help by trying to identify as soon as possible which of their cases are likely to turn into intractable disputes and then being clear sighted about the options which are realistic in their case. It is essential at the earliest possible stage, all agree a clear timetable for either achieving contact or recognizing that it is not achievable whilst the child remains with the resident parent. There will then need to be full and honest appraisal of the likely success if a child is removed from the resident parent – either into foster care or to care of non- resident parent.

Proper analysis of the available options and the impact of each on the child’s welfare requires knowledge and understanding about what is in reality available to a family; little point in considering ‘specialist family mediation’ for example, if there are no providers within a reasonable distance or no one can afford to pay for it.

The following considerations may help this process:

  • Clear analysis at the earliest stage as to the degree and nature of opposition to contact. How objective and reasonable is the opposition? How flexible are the parents prepared to be? How quickly did problems escalate? Warning bells will start to ring at an early stage and should not be ignored.
  • If the non-resident parent does not accept the objections raised by the resident parent, consider an early fact finding so that there is a clear understanding of potential problems. Courts are often reluctant to go down this route (see Re E, para 11), worried that parents may simply focus on allegations against each other rather than the welfare of the child. However, this risk needs to be considered against the problems that can be caused by allegations that are never confronted and which linger on throughout the proceedings, to the detriment of any resolution;
  • If a case shows signs of being intractable, judicial continuity is very desirable;
  • Robust enforcement of any contact orders made at an early stage – don’t let this drift, bring non-compliance straight back to court. Be clear about why it hasn’t worked – did the resident parent fail to encourage? Did the non-resident parent fail to comply, for e.g. with indirect contact?;
  • The non-resident parent should be prepared to make reparation for any behaviour that has contributed to the resident parent’s distrust – not every case involves an absent parent who is wholly without reproach;
  • Making timely decisions about when a guardian or expert evidence is required. If the resident parent for example refuses to accept the outcome of a finding of fact this is usually the time when it is abundantly clear more needs to be done;
  • Exploring if there is any possibility of any help via therapeutic intervention/specialist mediation and how this is to be funded, etc
  • If it becomes clear that contact is not achievable whilst the child is living with the resident parent, there must be proper analysis of the available options and the impact on the child’s welfare of each – for example, should the court be invited to make an order under section 37 of CA 1989 for an interim care order so that the child goes into foster care?

However, the fundamental issue will always remain; these are not legal problems. Lawyers and the courts have poorly designed and often ineffectual tools at their disposal. But unless and until a more effective arena is available to tackle the problem of intractable contact disputes, we will have to do our imperfect best.

 

Further reading

See Re H (Children) [2015 EWCA Civ 1216 for another sad example of the limitations of the court process in attempt to resolve disputes between parents.

See this article from the Custody Minefield about how intractable contact disputes can go wrong or get worse.

 

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