Ask any family lawyer and they will tell you that summer is a period which presents numerous challenges for separated parents. These come on top of all the usual summer holiday concerns facing every parent such as managing childcare and keeping children entertained for six weeks! That means it’s really important to plan ahead and make sure you’ve got all the potential family law issues dealt with so you can concentrate on having an enjoyable summer with the kids.
Travel trouble on the horizon?
If a parent is named in a court order as someone who a child lives with, they have permission to travel abroad with the child for up to one month. But otherwise, permission for foreign travel is needed from everyone with parental responsibility – even where relations between separated parents are very amicable.
Border guards can and often do stop families and ask for proof that a parent – usually if travelling alone – has permission to take a child out of England and Wales or into another country. To avoid any travel delays it is sensible to arrange for a permission letter to be drafted up in advance (and translated if necessary) to confirm the child is allowed to be on the trip.
Watch out because foreign travel also includes Scotland and Northern Ireland since they are separate legal jurisdictions from England and Wales, and the rules apply even for very short trips lasting a day or less.
If a parent has been denied permission to travel but they remain keen to take the planned trip, they can apply to the Family Court for a Specific Issue Order (SIO) which overrides the other parent’s lack of consent for the trip (or in some cases, permitting travel more generally).
And if the shoe is on the other foot and a parent objects to a trip that’s being planned, they can also apply to the Court for a Prohibited Steps Order (PSO) to prevent travel.
In the case of both a SIO and PSO application, the Court will hear from both parents then make a decision with the child’s wellbeing as the paramount factor. The Court will use a statutory list of factors known as the ‘welfare checklist’ to decide what course of action best furthers a child’s wellbeing, taking into account factors like their age, physical and educational needs, risk of harm to the child and their wishes and feelings where they are mature enough. But be wary: the Court has an enormous workload and it can take a number of weeks before Magistrates or a Judge will hear the case. If you have any issues over foreign travel this summer, an application should be made as soon as possible.
Before any court application is considered, parents are required to try and resolve their differences through mediation (unless a strict set of exemptions apply) or another alternative form of dispute resolution such as solicitor negotiation – both of these options can be cheaper and much quicker than court proceedings.
Where a holiday is agreed (or if by virtue of a court order there is no need for agreement), it is still a good idea to manage expectations about how that holiday fits into wider child arrangements.
For example, if a child has a phone or video call with the other parent on a weeknight, does this continue during the holiday? If it does, could a time difference or change of location have an impact on how well that works? What about a change in routine (bedtimes, mealtimes, etc.) that often comes with a holiday? Have a discussion well in advance of an agreed trip taking place to avoid any misunderstandings. That way you can make sure the only thing you come home to is a huge pile of laundry and not a parental dispute.
Avoid staycation strife
Even where foreign travel isn’t involved, the summer can present difficulties. A lot of parents who find contact handovers tricky will use school or nursery as the ‘handover’ point, with one parent’s time ending at the start of the school day, and the other’s beginning when the school bell rings. This way they can keep direct contact to a minimum. This helpful tool disappears during the summer so parents may have to think carefully about how handovers are facilitated to avoid exposing children to any unnecessary tension or conflict.
School holiday clubs are a useful alternative, with one parent taking a child to the club and the other picking them up. Clubs might be prohibitively expensive for a lot of families so parents might need to think about what’s available for free locally. A handover in a public place might provide reassurance. Even something as simple as the local park provides a welcome distraction for children and take the pressure off a bit if there is a risk one parent might be late.
Without the natural and obvious start to the weekend that the end of the school week provides, there may have to be discussions about when contact actually starts and finishes during the holidays. Parents who are in a routine of handing over uniform, sports kit and homework also need to think about all the other activities summer might bring. A discussion could be needed to make sure the sunblock and armbands are packed for contact instead of the usual lunchbox and gym shoes.
How to avoid any potential problems
There are various ways parents can try to tackle the child-related issues that summer can bring. Most will be able to have a discussion face to face or over text or email and resolve any issues fairly quickly. For others, things aren’t so simple and they might need to get help from a third party.
Family mediation is a process in which a professionally trained and independent mediator helps parents work out arrangements for children. A session or two might be needed to iron out summer arrangements, or a longer period of mediation could be required to deal with more wide-ranging issues.
The Family Mediation Council offers a voucher scheme whereby some parents are eligible for £500 in vouchers to go towards the cost of mediation. You can learn more here: https://www.familymediationcouncil.org.uk/mediation-vouchers/
Mediation doesn’t work for everyone or it may not be suitable due to one of the specific exemptions. If this is the case, then a solicitor can help by writing to the other parent to explain what you want to happen and why, and if necessary, negotiating on your behalf to reach a suitable compromise.
If all else fails, court proceedings may be justified where the severity and implications of the issues in dispute justify it – and time allows. As mentioned above, it can take weeks for an issue to come to Court unless there are circumstances which warrant an urgent application. If you have any inkling that court proceedings may be necessary, it is important to speak to a solicitor as soon as possible to understand how the court might treat the issue, to try to resolve it without court first of all, and if that isn’t possible to make sure your application is made to the court in a way that gives the best possible chance of it succeeding swiftly.
If you need help from a solicitor or just want to understand the law and your rights in relation to children, it is always a good idea to speak with a lawyer who is a member of Resolution. Resolution solicitors are committed to resolving issues in a constructive way that puts children and their wellbeing at the centre. Everyone in the Family Law team at Furley Page is a Resolution member.
Contact Megan Bennie or a member of the family law team on 01227 763939 for further information. We can assist with all aspects of family law relating to children, as well as divorce or dissolution and finances arising from separation and cohabitation issues.