Children And Families Act 2014
The Children and Families Act 2014 will come into force on the 22nd of April 2014 and will introduce a number of changes to private law children act proceedings as we know them. Some of the most important changes are set out below:
1) Mediation Information and Assessment Meetings
Section 10 of the new Act states that an individual must attend a Mediation Information and Assessment Meeting before making a relevant family law application. Relevant family law applications include most private law children act applications. Currently, individuals are only expected to attend, unless they fall within an exception.
Mediation Information and Assessment Meetings take place with a qualified Family Mediator. The aim of these meetings is to provide individuals with information about the process of mediation and to see whether or not mediation is appropriate for a case.
2) Child Arrangements Orders
Residence Orders and Contact Orders in private law children act proceedings will no longer exist. Instead, under section 12 of the Act, individuals will be able to apply to the Court for a Child Arrangements Order setting out “with whom a child is to live, spend time or otherwise have contact” and “when a child is to live, spend time or otherwise have contact with any person”.
Why the change? There is often an impression that there is a “winner” and a “loser” in private law children act proceedings, the “winner” being the person in whose favour a Residence Order is made and the Act’s aim is to remove this. The objective is to encourage parents to work together and to recognise the importance of both parents’ roles in a child’s life.
3) Emphasis on Parental Involvement in Private Law Children Act Proceedings
Under Section 11 of the Act, the Court will be required “to presume, unless the contrary is shown” that the involvement of each of the child’s parents “will further the child’s welfare” when reaching a decision in relation to:
a) An application for or for the variation or discharge of a Section 8 Order (Child Arrangements Order, Specific Issue Order or Prohibited Steps Order);
b) An application for a Special Guardianship Order; and
c) An application for Parental Responsibility to be granted or removed.
The presumption exists only if “that parent can be involved in the child's life in a way that does not put the child at risk of suffering harm” and is to be treated as so “unless there is some evidence before the court in the particular proceedings to suggest that involvement of that parent in the child's life would put the child at risk of suffering harm whatever the form of the involvement.”
Where the presumption does exist, the Act should not be interpreted as meaning that it will be in the best interests of a child to have an equal division of time with both parents. The Act specifies that “”involvement” means involvement of some kind, either direct or indirect, but not any particular division of a child’s time.”
We will have to wait and see whether or not this amendment will actually make any difference given that Courts already generally approach such cases with the view that shared parenting is in children’s best interests where this does not pose a risk to the child’s welfare. Nonetheless, enshrining this in the law officially recognises this.