Family Proceedings: New ideas or just a load of new lingo?

Well the soap writers won’t be happy. They will be hankering after the good old days, pre Children Act 1989, when the terminology in family proceedings was about as loaded as a Russian Oligarch’s pockets.

The ‘C’ word. All those years ago, separating and divorcing parents had a mighty tool in their arsenal. ‘Custody.’ Even just the threat of it was often enough to cause irreparable harm to an already fragile relationship. Custody; a word conjuring up confinement, control and possession. A Custody Order would often result in one triumphant parent. The other (aka the loser) would then be awarded ‘access’ as though it were some kind of consolation prize.

The Children Act moved us on from all that. Like wearing velcro-edged shoulder pads in the workplace, the late eighties bought us fresh ideas. The Act slashed Custody and introduced the Residence Order. Likewise we lost Access and instead a parent wanting to see her/his children has to apply to the court for a Contact Order.

Arguably, some of the drama was lost.

‘You’ll see. I’ll fight you all the way. I’ll get custody of my kids.’ You can just see it. Man pointing aggressively in woman’s face as he storms out of the house. Or, woman screaming at man after being shut out of the family home because she’d been having an affair.

It wasn’t quite the same. Ie. ‘You just wait. I’m going to apply to the court for a Residence Order.’ Scary.

Now the Child and Families Act 2014, which becomes law on 22nd April, is going one stage further. Amongst loads of changes (which include the setting up of one Family Court) Residence and Contact Orders are being scrapped and ‘Child Arrangements Orders’ introduced. The principles will remain the same. That is, that the welfare of the child is paramount, that delay in proceedings is generally not good and that the court will only make an order if that is beneficial to the child. But the idea is that this terminology will remove any kind of winner/loser status and help parents work more positively together in terms of sorting out arrangements for their children.

It will be interesting to see what, if any, difference it makes. Personally, having spent many years talking Residence and Access, my view is that any step towards reducing antagonism and promoting cooperation, is a good thing. But I’m not so sure the screenwriters, undoubtedly still mourning the death of child Custody, will agree.



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