Upon separation, parents continue to exercise their parental responsibility for their children and often have to manage this, despite leading different lives to their former spouse. If arrangements cannot be agreed, it may become necessary to apply to court for an order determining the way in which the children are cared for - this is known as a Child Arrangements Order (CAO).
A CAO can be as specific or as flexible as the Court decides, but is ultimately put in place to regulate the time in which a child spends with either parent. It acts as a tool for parents to fall back on in times of disagreement.
A CAO is completely child-centric and formulated with the best interests of the child as the paramount consideration, in line with the Welfare Checklist.
A CAO can cover any of the following points, depending on the facts and circumstances of the case:
- Direct and indirect contact arrangements;
- Overnight and visiting contact arrangements;
- Supervised and unsupervised contact arrangements.
A CAO is only appropriate when the parties are unable to agree on the issues. Before making an application, the prospective applicant must attend a mediation information and assessment meeting (MIAM). This gives the parties a chance to consider other forms of dispute resolution that could assist, without the need to go to court.
It is following a MIAM, and the failure to resolve the matter, that an application can be made to court. The court process then follows, including:
- Contribution by a CAFCASS (court appointed guardians) officer;
- First Hearing Dispute Resolution Appointment (FHDRA);
- Dispute Resolution Appointment;
- Final Hearing.
Each step will attempt to narrow the issues and create the opportunity to settle without the need for a final hearing. The role of the CAFCASS officer is often very important and those recommendations should always be taken into consideration. At any point prior to the final hearing, the parties can agree a CAO by consent and finalise the matter that way, otherwise it will proceed to a final hearing before a judge or magistrate.
Once the CAO is finalised the parties have a clear framework to abide by and to utilise to manage the arrangements for the benefit of the children.
It is also important to note that no CAO is a final order, it could stay in place for the entirety of childhood, or it could be varied to take into account new circumstances. The court takes each matter on a case by case basis and ultimately rules in the best interest of the child.