A Child Arrangements Order is a court order put in place after a divorce or separation that lays out childcare arrangements. The order covers where children will live, and the contact arrangements between parents and children.

When is a child arrangements order necessary?

The child arrangements order (CAO) is designed to look after the welfare and best interests of any children of separated parents.

A CAO court order is normally only needed when parents cannot agree on what is best for their child. The court process can be lengthy, so it is disappointing when one parent decides to breach the terms of the order.

Breach of a child arrangement order can cause distress for a parent, but also results in significant instability for children. At times it can even mean children are not permitted to see one of their parents, so it is important to understand your options when a breach occursAnnique Sampson, Family Law solicitor

What is a breach of a child arrangements order?

A breach of a CAO happens when anything is done that is not in compliance with the terms of the order. The court must be satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that a breach has occurred, and courts generally only get involved when breaches are both deliberate and substantial.

Minor breaches of a CAO are inevitable; a parent is likely to be a few minutes late or early when collecting or dropping off their child. We all know that this kind of thing happens, and that it’s not likely to be anyone’s ‘fault’.

So the court expects that all parties should have a pragmatic approach when it comes to these minor breaches. Even if there is a more significant breach, it may not always be deliberate or something which a court would seek to enforce. For example, if a parent has been delayed in traffic for several hours, or is involved in an accident, it would be highly unlikely the offending parent would suffer any consequences in court as a result.

However, if a parent breaches the order repeatedly, even if the breaches are small, or if they simply refuse to follow the child arrangements order, then the court can exercise its powers and enforce compliance with the CAO.

Due to the potentially acrimonious circumstances that led to the separation in the first place, there are times when a parent has to apply for the CAO to be enforced. For example, one parent may refuse outright to let their ex see their child, without any valid justification.

What can you do if your former partner breaches a CAO?

When a CAO breach occurs, there are several possible actions you may take:

  • The best place to start is, of course, by discussing the breach with your ex. They may be able to reassure you that it won’t happen again, and you can make adjustments between you to make things easier. So, for example, if they are regularly delayed on a Wednesday afternoon for a 4pm pickup, you may be able to agree a change to 4.30pm – or even switch to Thursdays. If you find communication difficult, it might be easier to work through a mediator – so enabling you to establish a consistent routine for the children involved.
  • If it is still difficult to solve matters amicably, you might have to involve a family law solicitor. They could then send a letter to your former partner detailing your concerns, showing you take breaches of the agreed child arrangements order seriously. This may be enough to stop any more breaches from occurring.
  • And if it still proves impossible to put a stop to these breaches, you will have to refer the issue back to court. You can do this to either seek enforcement of the existing order, or you might request an alternative order, such as a prohibited steps order preventing the other parent from taking a particular action with your child, or make a variation to the terms of the existing order.

Your best route depends on your personal circumstances, and the reasons the breach happened in the first place. Talk to an experienced family law solicitor to discuss your options.

Remember that the court has a number of punitive options available when enforcing the order: these range from ordering a fine or community service, to even a custodial sentence.

Worries about children’s wellbeing

Remember that your ex may have genuine concerns about your children’s safety if they kept to the terms of the CAO. You might not understand or believe the validity of their concerns, but they might be real to them.

We have heard many accounts of why contact has been stopped by one parent, including 2nd-hand stories about the behaviour of their ex. If this is the case, it’s crucial to find evidence one way or another, and obtain evidence to counter any concerns or provide facts to disprove any mistaken beliefs.

Hopefully, this will lead to contact arrangements being re-established – the sooner the better. Early action and good legal advice will lead to reduced harm for the children and parents involved.

Who will pay?

During enforcement proceedings, the court can order compensation against the breaching parent in favour of the other, if they are out of pocket because of any CAO breach. This, of course, is dependent on the circumstances.

The court can order legal costs against one parent if it is satisfied that it is fair and reasonable to do so. In determining this, the court will consider the facts of the case and the nature of any breach. Your family law solicitor can guide you on the likely costs of your case, and the likelihood of securing an order for costs against your former partner.

How Cunningtons family law can help

One of our family law experts will be able to advise you on your available options when it comes to any breach of a child arrangement order. They can discuss the routes available to you, and help you with legal advice that will help meet you and your children’s needs.

Please contact Annique Sampson in the family law team on 01376 326 868 or email annique.sampson@cunningtons.co.uk for further advice.

Cunningtons LLP has offices in BraintreeChelmsford and Wickford.

This article is for general information only and does not constitute legal or professional advice. Please note that the law may have changed since this article was published.

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