There are essentially three main steps for getting a contact order. Hopefully though, you may not need one.
A contact order (formerly known as child access) is an order from the court requiring the person with whom the child lives to allow the child to visit or stay with the absent parent. Most people will think of this in terms of custody, though this phrase has not been in use in legal terms for some years. It is effectively allowing contact between the child and the parent who does not live with them.
A contact order is not compulsory. You do not have to have one if you and your ex can decide between the two of your how it should work. Recent figures showed that only 10% of separated parents need to use the courts to reach agreement on residence or contact. In all honesty, sorting things out yourselves is the best way to do things and demonstrates as much as anything that you are both putting the children at the heart of your decisions, which is where they should be. If you can manage this but want to formalise the arrangement a little more, you can have a parenting agreement drawn up which captures the arrangements you have settled on.
Applying for a contact order
You will need to apply to the court for a contact order if you are having difficulties arranging contact with your children because the other party is being awkward, obstructive or simply refusing to respond to requests.
There are essentially three steps to getting a contact order.
Stage one is to make an application to the court and have it served on your ex through your solicitor ahead of an initial hearing. It is often the case that issues can be quickly resolved at this stage as the other party is shocked into action by the fact that a legal process has been started.
If that doesn’t happen, stage two involves filling in evidence forms about your case, circumstances, relationship with your children and the approach of the other party so far. There may also be preparation of a report by an officer from CAFCASS – the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service. They will make a recommendation to the court on the way forward after looking at all circumstances, which the judge is normally minded to follow. It may be that this is enough to prompt a workable solution but, if not, stage three will be an unpleasant day in court.
The judge will hear all the evidence, during which both parties can be cross-examined by the other person’s barrister, and make a ruling on when and where contact should take place. If the parent with whom the child is resident fails to comply, the absent parent can go back to court for enforcement. This happens in less than 10 per cent of cases where a contact order has been necessary. Unfortunately, in a minority of cases, the resident parent continues to ignore these enforcements and it can be difficult to implement practical punitive measures as most would have a detrimental impact upon the child’s wellbeing.
Going through the process can be costly, not to mention time-consuming and intrusive. The best policy all round is to thrash out the details yourselves for the good of all involved.