A child arrangements order is a court order which states where a child will live, how they will be cared for and how they will spend their time with one or both of their parents. A question which often goes unasked, however, is how long will the order last?
The contact arrangements set out within a child arrangements order, i.e. the parts which deal with how often the child spends time with their parent(s), will be legally binding until the child reaches the age of 16, unless the order specifically states otherwise. This is in line with section 91(10) of the Children Act 1989. Once a child reaches the age of 16, the family court is usually satisfied that the child can then decide how much contact they would like to have with the parent they do not live with.
On the other hand, the ‘live with’ element of a child arrangements order, i.e. the part which states which parent the child is to live with, will be legally binding until the child is 18 years old. This is largely due to the fact that, in the context of the Children Act 1989, a child means a person under the age of 18. In reality, however, the family court is very reluctant to enforce these orders beyond the age of 16 unless there are exceptional circumstances.
Each case is judged on its individual circumstances, but ‘exceptional circumstances’ could for example include that the child has special educational or behavioural needs, or perhaps that the housing/living arrangements of one of the parents is deemed unsuitable for the child.
The family court’s approach to the age of a child was presented in a recent court case, in which Shoosmiths was involved. The Mother sought an order that her two teenage children should live with her, whereas the Father sought an order that the children should live with him. As the eldest child was due to turn 16 within a matter of weeks of the hearing, the judge made it clear from the outset that, whatever order was made, it would not be in relation to the eldest child. The judge was satisfied in that case that the eldest child should be able to decide which parent he wished to live with.
These are issues which are increasingly being brought before the family court. A recent Family Solutions Group report suggested that about 40% of all separating families in England and Wales bring disputes about their children’s care to the family court for determination. With this in mind, the age of the child (or children) in question will be a major factor in whatever order is made by the court.
It should also be recognised that no child arrangements order is necessarily a final order. It may well last for the entirety of the child’s childhood, but it could be varied to account for a change in the family circumstances. Ultimately, the family court will deal with each case on its merits and will decide what it considers to be in the best interests of the child.
To discuss how Shoosmiths might be able to help you with problems regarding any private children law matters please feel free to get in touch with our family team on 03700 86 8300.