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Research looks at parent’s experiences of relocation disputes

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Applications from one divorced parent to move abroad with their children can have a devastating effect on fragile inter-family relations post separation. This may seem obvious but some ongoing research really does give an insight into how difficult it is.

We blogged late last year on a study which threw up some interesting stats, like the fact that mums were more often than not the ones who applied for relocation. However, it also suggested that, whereas a few years ago, maybe 95 per cent of applications would have been successful, the pendulum had swung back the other way somewhat, giving hope to dads fighting against a move overseas for their offspring.

Now preliminary research findings from University of Oxford and Nuffield Foundation’s Parents’ Experiences of Relocation Disputes which I’ve had sight of support this view but also reveal how the process leaves most people involved sad and with poorer relationships with their ex.

The information published so far is only a progress report, as full analysis of the information from interviews with 34 parents, most (28) of whom were involved in international relocation disputes, is still ongoing. As such, it provides few real statistical insights, just a general feel of attitudes toward the process, and outcomes.

All applicants in the study are mothers, and all respondents fathers. This is fairly typical but gives little comfort to fathers out there. This point is amplified when you consider that the first some of the fathers knew about a possible relocation was when the children mentioned it to them, or in the middle of a contact hearing

Many parents – both mothers and fathers – spoke about how the relocation had been planned while the former relationship was still on-going. Whether there was agreement on the relocation is unclear and may have had a bearing on relationship breakdown but clearly it did not stop the parent wanting to move from pursuing their goal.

The good news is that a few of those parents interviewed did resolve their cases through negotiation, and this is perhaps where we can add most value as experienced family solicitors looking to get the best outcome for our clients. However, it is worth noting that all of the cases being looked at went to court at least once for a preliminary hearing – and most ended with a final hearing at which a judge made the decision about relocation. In the end, 12 went ahead and 13 didn’t (out of the international cases only). A judge making the decision is not ideal for anyone involved. It would be unfair to say it is like tossing a coin, but in some cases it may feel like that in the end. Some people thought the decision hinged on the personal feelings of the judge who had the final say rather than the arguments of the case.

There was positive feedback on lawyers and barristers involved in terms of their professionalism and the service received, but the cost was a concern for many. Leaving extreme cases aside, the average cost of legal fees for applicants in this study was £34,000, and for respondents was £37,500. It can be an involved and time consuming process and this is reflected in the cost of legal counsel and representation, although in our experience these kind of costs tend only to be incurred when there are intractable positions.

My main takeout from the 10-page story-so-far document though was of the emotional impact of this type of case. All found the court process distressing. Former amicable relationships between ex-partners became combative. There was a perceived prejudice towards the primary carer which could cause bitterness and resentment. Those who lost were often quoted as being “devastated”.

“The overall impression gained from the interviews is one of sadness,” states the report.

So what can we do to help? Our advice is to try and agree out of court to keep down costs and animosity, but in these cases there can be very little common ground: one wants to go and the other doesn’t. At least by deciding out of court, you are not leaving it to a judge to decide.

Perhaps the best steer is to urge people to remember that this should be about the wellbeing of the children and what is best for them. Keeping that in the front of your mind throughout will help you make the right decisions.

Andrew Woolley
Woolley & Co, divorce solicitor

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