At Hegarty Solicitors we understand how difficult and stressful it can be to sort out arrangements for children, particularly if you are going through a divorce or separation or if social services are involved.
We have family lawyers that specialise in various areas of practice involving children, including the following:
- Separation or divorce
- Care proceedings
Separation Or Divorce
One of the most vital things to consider when a couple separate or divorce is the effect it will have on their children. Emotions often run high but it is important to put the children’s needs first and prevent them being caught up in arguments.
How Are Things Decided?
Regarding making the arrangements for children it is important to be willing to negotiate and come to an agreement rather than argue at length. If both parties agree a proposal, it is more likely to work than if one party is not happy. The day to day living arrangements will need to be considered (also known as “Residence”) and how much time they spend with the other parent (known as “Contact”).
It is best if you and your partner can come to some private arrangement regarding your children. This means the Courts do not become involved and your children are protected from unnecessary upset. If you and your partner have come to some agreement, you will need to tell your solicitor about it so that it can be formalised if this is what you wish.
What If We Cannot Reach An Agreement About Our Children Ourselves?
If you cannot reach a private agreement yourselves, the first step is to speak to your solicitor. They may be able to suggest alternatives and to speak with your ex-partner’s solicitor and come to some agreement, again without involving the Courts directly. You may want to consider using collaborative law to reach an agreement with your ex-partner without going to court.
If this proves impossible, the Court can become involved and will make the decision based on the evidence they receive. They will need details of the children such as their ages, their wishes and feelings, the ability of the parents to meet their needs and any other information they feel relevant. They may ask for a Welfare Report, which is a detailed report looking at all of these aspects, which is drawn up by an expert who deals with these cases on a day to day basis. This will usually involve a visit to where the children are living and, if they are old enough, asking them questions on how they feel. This report can sometimes take twelve weeks to complete.
What Will The Court Decide?
The Court can decide both where the children live, and when and where the parents can have contact with their children. The Court’s initial view is for no Orders to be made unless necessary in the hope that the parents can agree all children issues. The best interests of the children will be of paramount consideration to the Court.
What Happens To The Children If We Are Not Married?
For unmarried parents the mother will automatically gain parental responsibility. The father will also automatically gain parental responsibility if he is named on the child’s Birth Certificate if the child’s birth was registered after December 2003. Otherwise the father will have to either enter into an agreement with the mother or apply to the Court to gain parental responsibility. Parental responsibility enables a parent to have a say on major legal issues affecting a child’s life e.g. education, religion, changing their name etc. In relation to contact with a child, it is largely irrelevant whether the parents were married and the same principles above will apply.
Keeping Children Safe
It is important that children are not exposed to harmful conflicts in the home as well as protected from physical harm. If there has been physical violence or abuse it may be necessary to consider whether it is in a child’s best interests to have contact with the violent parent, or safeguards can be put in place if necessary. If you are experiencing domestic violence remember, you are not alone, it is imperative that you obtain legal advice as soon as possible or call the 24 hour National Domestic Violence helpline on 0800 2000 247.
It is very daunting to have social services involved in your care of the children and in this situation it is extremely important that you obtain specialist legal advice on your position.
My Social Worker Has Told Me Social Services Have Concerns About My Care Of The Children, What Should I Do?
If a local authority is concerned about the level of care provided to your children they could convene a Child Protection Conference to determine whether the children’s names should be placed on a Child Protection register under a certain category e.g. neglect, risk of sexual abuse etc. A plan will be put in place to reduce the risks to the children. In some cases, where the local authority continues to have serious concerns or if there are urgent circumstances, the local authority can make an application to Court for a Care or Supervision Order.
A Court can only make a care or supervision order if it is satisfied:
- That the child is suffering or is likely to suffer significant harm, and
- That the harm or likelihood of harm is attributable to the care given to him (or likely to be given to him if an order were not made) which falls below a reasonable standard, or
- The child is beyond parental control
We can help you at all stages by advising at the Child Protection Conference and representing you in any subsequent care proceedings.
An Application Has Been Made For A Care Order In Respect Of My Children. I Am Working & Cannot Afford A Solicitor. What Can I Do?
Irrespective of your income and assets public funding (also known as legal aid) is automatically available to parents and parties with parental responsibility.
What Happens If A Care Order Is Made?
A care order will provide the local authority with parental responsibility for your child which will enable them to decide where the children will live, how often contact takes place and other important issues. The Care Order lasts until a child’s 18th birthday but can be discharged earlier if circumstances change.
Even if a Care Order is made, this does not necessarily mean your child will be removed from your care. The local authority may decide that it is in the best interest of the child to remain with you. Also, it may be possible to arrange a residential assessment to help address areas of concern.
We’re Thinking About Adopting, What Are The Legal Procedures?
There are different circumstances in which a person may be considering adopting a child. A person may be unable to have children and seek to adopt a child via the local authority. Alternatively a step-parent may wish to adopt their spouse’s child or children. This would have the affect of deeming your spouse to be the child’s adoptive parent and would confer legal rights, known as parental responsibility, upon your partner. It is necessary to make a joint application to the Court and a detailed report is then prepared by the allocated social worker. The Court will then decide whether or not an adoption order should be granted.
The law has however changed in respect of adoption and the changes are likely to be introduced in the immediate future. One of the main changes is that it will no longer be necessary for a joint application to be made and your spouse could apply alone.
We would be happy to advise you further of the procedure and law involved. If adoption is not appropriate we can discuss other options with you, for example Special Guardianship or Child Arrangements Orders.