Navigating the UK Family Court System for Co-Parenting Disputes

In a perfect world, co-parenting, once through the more emotional and stressful moments of separation, would be free of disputes. Unfortunately, even with co-parenting relationships that are good, the occasional dispute can happen. And sometimes, those disputes are not able to be corrected without the help of the courts. 

In these instances, understanding how to navigate the UK family court system is important so that co-parenting disputes are worked through quickly and with limited effects on your children. For this reason, while we hope that 2houses would avoid these situations, we are here to give you some important understandings on navigating the UK family court system for any co-parenting disputes that can’t be mediated out of court.

Where Can Disputes Occur?

When you are dealing with co-parenting, there can be a number of disputes. Often, this occurs because of financials, or it could simply be around visitation or one parent moving. If you are the primary caregiver, you may feel that you have the right to make decisions without the input of your ex-partner; however, it should be noted that both parents have to make big decisions together.

And it is these big decisions that often create the higher risk of disputes needing the courts to make the final decision. So what are some disputes that occur_decisions both parents need to make?

  • Large moves: If you are staying in the same city or neighbourhood, then moves are often expected and do not need joint agreement; however, if you are moving the child out of the city, county or country, then both parents have to agree to it.
  • Changing Schools: As parents, you often decide on the education plan of your children from a young age. Once separated, that decision is still made by both parents and neither parent can change or select a school without the input and agreement of the other parent.
  • Authorized Absences: It may not seem like an issue, but any absence from school that is authorised must be authorised by both parents. The school is legally obligated to have both parents sign off on an absence. Often, these don’t land in the family court system, unless there is a high number of absences only authorized by one parent.
  • Living and Contact Arrangements: Once the co-parenting agreement is confirmed, this isn’t a dispute very often; however, occasionally, changes in school holidays can lead to disputes over these arrangements and further arbitration is necessary to overcome these disputes.
  • Changing a Child’s Surname: This has to be agreed upon by both parents. At no time can only one person change the surname of the child.

There are many other reasons that you can end up in the UK family court system, but these are often some of the more frequent reasons. So now let’s look how to navigate through them. 

Understanding the Power of the Court

Before you head to filing an application to the court, you should decide on whether or not your case warrants court action, or can even be heard by the court. If it is something that is particularly minor, you and your ex-partner should look at mediation instead of going through the court. Even larger disputes can be done through mediation and are usually faster and less expensive than a court case is. For more tips on mediation in the UK, read our article on mediation. 

In the event that you cannot go through mediation to work through this dispute, make sure you understand what you are filing. A family lawyer can help you with this, but for a quick understanding, the family court can rule on the following:

  • Child Arrangement Orders: Also known as CAO, this is the order of who the child resides with and what the visitation arrangement (also known as contact arrangement) is part of this order.
  • Specific Issue Orders: This order, also known as an SIO, is used to give decision making permission to one parent so they can make medical decisions without joint permission or can make the decision to take the child out of the country.
  • Prohibited Steps Order: A PSO is an order that is set if there are reasons why a parent should not have the ability to take action in regard to their relationship with their child. This has been seen in cases where one parent is worried another parent will leave the country with the child.

When a court makes these orders, they do so with the child’s best interests in mind. 

Filing an Arrangement With the Court

If you have reached the stage where mediation is not working, you can file an application to the family court to have a judge make the decision. When filing an arrangement, there are a few considerations that you should follow.

Consideration One: Use the Proper Form

Most applications for the UK family court is done on the C100 form. This can be downloaded from the website. However, you can file right online now, or you can submit a paper form. It is important to note that Scotland and Northern Ireland has different steps to file an application so contact a lawyer to do so if you reside in those areas.

One thing to point out is that if there are allegations of domestic violence in your ex-relationship, you will need to file an additional form, which is the C1A form. 

Consideration Two: The Fees

Before you get ready to file, be ready to pay the fees. While the fees can change slightly, as of 2023, the fees to file a C100 form is £232.

Consideration Three: Notifying the Other Parent

Most orders will require a notification to the other parent that you are pursuing this dispute in the UK family court system. However, there are times when you can ask that the other parent is not notified. These are known as “without notice” applications and are usually limited to urgent cases with specific steps order or a prohibited steps order. They are only granted in exceptional circumstances but the other parent will need to be notified once an order is in place. 

In that instance, the order will only be enforced for a limited time until both cases are heard in full and then a final, more permanent order will be set. 

Consideration Number Four: Understand the Stages

Once you have filed your application, there are three, potentially four, stages that you will go through. These are:

  1. FHDRA: The first hearing dispute resolution appointment, which is usually a very short hearing where the judge organizes the case.
  2. DRA: The dispute resolution appointment is the preparation for the case where they hear key issues, the extent the issues can be resolved, filing statements of facts, witness arguments, and ensuring that everything complies with the practice direction 27A.
  3. FFH: A fact finding hearing does not always happen but is often done during cases with domestic violence. Fact finding hearings considers the evidence around any allegations and the judge will decide if the allegations occurred or not. 
  4. FH: The final hearing is where the judge will assess all of the evidence and make a final decision. Not all hearings will end with an order but most will.  

During the entire process, you and your ex-partner will be encouraged to settle the dispute on your own prior to the final hearing. 

Navigating the UK family court system can seem daunting but when you understand the process and understand what you can ask for in regard to court orders, you will find it much easier to navigate. Hopefully, you won’t have to go to the final hearing, but if you do, understanding the process will ensure you are more confident walking into court.