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Government proposes new legislation to change perception of child contact arrangements

Date:14 JUN 2012

ParliamentThe Government has announced plans to introduce new legislation that explicitly makes clear that children should have an ongoing relationship with both their parents after separation, where that is safe and in the child's best interests.

The Children Act 1989 sets out the clear principle that a child's welfare is always paramount in any family court decision about their future. However, Ministers argue that the benefit of ongoing involvement with both parents is not explicitly stated in law even though it is factored into decisions.

The Government would like to amend section 1 of the Children Act 1989 to require the court to "work on the presumption that a child's welfare is likely to be furthered through safe involvement with both parents - unless the evidence shows this not to be safe or in the child's best interests".

The other options put forward in consultation are:

  • requiring the courts to have regard to a principle that a child's welfare is likely to be furthered through involvement with both parents;
  • providing that the court's starting point in making decisions about children's care is that a child's welfare is likely to be furthered through involvement with both parents, and;
  • inserting a new sub-section immediately after the welfare checklist, setting an additional factor which the court would need to consider.

The proposals are likely to make little practical difference to what currently happens in family courts and make clear that any change is not about equality in time that a child spends with each parent after separation. They state explicitly, there is no intention that equal time or any prescribed notion of an ‘appropriate' division of time, should be the starting point of a court's consideration.

The consultation also asks how to toughen sanctions to enforce breaches of court orders regarding care arrangements - including, where there is a wilful refusal to comply with the court, short-term punitive action to protect the longer-term interests of the child. The existing sanctions of a fine or imprisonment for contempt of court, or an order to undertake unpaid work, are not often used.

The proposals were first proposed in February - as part of the Government's response to the independent Family Justice Review Panel. The consultation closes on Wednesday 5 September 2012.

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