What happens to your children if you separate from your partner?

Court proceedings regarding the arrangements for children upon parents separating are often highly sensitive, complex and emotive. Separated parents who cannot agree where their children should live, or how often they should spend in each home, may have to consider asking a court to decide what should happen if they are unable to come to an agreement. Before issuing court proceedings, parents should try to negotiate via their solicitors and are required to consider mediation. However, if all these options fail, the parents will ask a court to consider how a child's best interests will be met.

A court will always consider a child's welfare and wellbeing as a priority. This will be balanced against other factors, such as the child’s wishes and feelings, their specific requirements and the abilities of both parents in meeting those requirements. A pilot scheme has been launched across various parts of the country to see if the courts can better assist parents in finding the best arrangements for their children and this is where the idea of ‘settlement conference’ has been introduced.

What is a settlement conference?

Some Family judges will trial settlement conferences within Children Act court proceedings if the parents agree to engage and the court considers it a suitable option. These conferences allow a judge to encourage cooperation and effective communication between two parents who are likely to find discussions very difficult. The judges trialling these conferences will adopt a very flexible approach. The guidance suggests that the court can schedule a conference after the first or second hearing in the proceedings, but would also progress the court timetable to avoid any delays. Other family members, the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (CAFCASS) officers and potentially (if permitted) children, can also be involved in the conference. The purpose is to see if a productive negotiation can take place which could then end acrimonious court proceedings. If an agreement is reached, then this would be made into a binding court order.

If these conferences are introduced across the Family courts, this could be very useful. Similar hearings focused on negotiation are in place to deal with matrimonial financial cases and often result in cases settling at that stage. Separated parents, under the court's watchful eye, could be greatly helped by a judge's assistance in their discussions and also benefit from having input in making the arrangements for their children’s care. A conference can allow for long-term arrangements to be made and the difficult issues such as schooling, communication and parenting styles to be raised and discussed fully.

The needs of every child are unique, so it is encouraging that the courts are considering a flexible, bespoke and transparent way forward for families.