The process of navigating divorce and separation can be stressful and traumatic, and finding an agreement for the future of children involved in such proceedings can be the most complex part, and one which needs to be handled delicately for the benefit of all parties, but primarily for the children themselves. In most cases the two separating parties are able to communicate and demonstrate an element of compromise to come to an agreement on the futures of the children under their care, but that is not always the case, and if no agreement can be reached then a Child Arrangement Order is required.

What is a Child Arrangement Order?

A Child Arrangement Order (CAO) is a legally binding order from the courts which formally details the arrangements to be put in place for the care and welfare of the children of a divorcing or separating couple. This will dictate where they live, and often covers access arrangements for the non-residential parent.

If a CAO is breached by either party then there could be consequences if it is deemed the breach was not a result of ‘reasonable behaviour’ and sanctions could be imposed by the court, such as fines, requirements to complete unpaid work, and in extreme cases, imprisonment.

Who can apply for a CAO?

Anyone with parental responsibility can apply for a CAO.  There are other individual who may apply also, especially relatives with who a child has been living, for a set period as set out within the Children Act 1989.

The process of applying for a CAO

Upon separation it is always recommended to seek legal advice to establish what your options are with regards to child arrangements and other details of your separation, such as financial support and the division of assets. After that, the process of applying for a CAO takes on a number of stages:

  • Mediation – The legal system is now structured in a way that provides separating couples with opportunities to openly discuss their separation and to seek reconciliation where possible, or at least make amicable agreements if divorce is inevitable, so the first step in the CAO process is to attend a Mediation Information Assessment Meeting (MIAM).
  • Mediation can help to reach an agreement on child arrangements without invoking the costly court process. All parties are invited to attend the meetings and the idea is that open discussion in a more comfortable environment is better than the hostile environment of a court, where a judge makes the decisions. However, fundamental to the success of this is that parties enter into mediation with the intention of finding an amicable solution, so in instances where this is not likely – such as where there has been evidence of domestic abuse and violence – this stage can be skipped.
  • Application – If mediation has not resolved to find an agreement on child arrangements, then one party can apply to court to seek a CAO. A C100 application needs to be formally submitted to the courts and is issued and served on the other party, it should ideally be completed with appropriate legal representation.
  • First hearing – Once the court has the necessary paperwork from the CAO declaration it will issue the first court hearing date. In this first hearing the court will listen to the details of the dispute and will ensure all the necessary steps have been taken to resolve the dispute. All parties are required to attend the hearing and it is possible to find an agreement during this part of the process. If this is the case, then the court may make a CAO which can then conclude the case.
  • Further hearings – If no agreement is made in the first hearing, the court will arrange for subsequent hearings in which further information is submitted and evidence given. This is common in more complex child arrangement situations.
  • Final hearing – In the final hearing the court will make its decision on arrangements and this will be recorded to form the body of the CAO. The CAO is then issued to both parties and becomes a legally binding document.

Support with applying for a child arrangement order

When making a CAO, the courts will always prioritise the child’s welfare and will make a decision based on the child’s best interests. This will take into account the wishes of the child, the needs of the child, any neglect or abuse that has been evidenced, the capacity of each parent to provide the necessary support and what impacts the decision will have on the child.

If you are in the process of divorce or separation and wish to discuss the formal arrangements for your children, or those under your care, then contact our Family Law department at Ison Harrison. We have expert family law solicitors who can advise and support you with this complex and delicate process, so get in touch today.

Read more

We have a useful Legal Guide which goes into further detail about Child Arrangement Orders.

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