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Parents and ‘shared care’ – what does it really mean?

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Shared care of children.

Parents who separate are always concerned about the care and welfare of their children. Recent changes means the family courts now put a focus on 'shared care', but what does that really mean? I receive lots of calls from parents who have recently separated and want to know more about 'shared care' which they have read about in the press or heard about from a friend.

It is not surprising that clients find this phrase confusing and mistakenly assume that it means that the children must spend half of their time with each parent.

Although there are some families which can accommodate a relatively equal division of time, for the children between two houses, this is not the case for every family. 

Shared care does not (necessarily) mean equal time

The Courts do not in any way endorse a 'one size fits all' approach and every family is treated as unique and regard is given to the working commitments of both parents and sometimes even the after school clubs and other activities which the children take part in. 

Therefore, although a separated couple may agree 'shared care' arrangements, this does not necessarily mean that the children spend equal amounts of time with both parents week in, week out.

The Court can make an order saying that the children will live with both parents and the order then goes on to set out the days and times the children will spend with each parent. The reasoning behind this is to ensure that both parents remain equal both in the eyes of the law, the children and arguably most importantly each other.

When I began practice in the mid 1990’s it was not uncommon for the Court to make an order that the children should live with one parent and only have contact to the other parent on certain days and times. Unfortunately, in some cases, this lead to a feeling of one parent having more 'power' or 'control' over the children with lots of disputes stemming from the fatal words 'you see the children when I say. They live with me, I'm in charge.'

What's in the best interests of the child?

The family division has come a long way, since I first started out, in making sure that both parents are treated equally and fairly, regardless of gender. The old 'contact and residence orders' have been replaced with Child Arrangements Orders, which is when 'shared care' came to the fore. This approach puts further emphasis on what's in the best interests of the child, which has always been the focus of the law, in any event.

If you are concerned about the care of your children once you separate do take advice before making any final decisions. That's why we offer a free initial chat with a lawyer so that you can get all the facts about the legal issues, rather than relying on myth or old fashioned notions based on historical examples.

Rebecca Franklin
Divorce & family lawyer Birmingham

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