Co-parenting and dispute resolution
Single parenting can be extremely tough; tough on the parent and tough on the child. Save for in exceptional circumstances where there may be domestic violence or substance addiction at play for example, the best way to ensure a child’s needs are met is for them to retain a close relationship with both parents.
There is research to suggest that the nature of the relationship between separated parents has a strong impact on the mental and emotional well-being of their children. Children of successful co-parents have the security of knowing they are loved by both parents; they have consistency across the two households, similar rules, disciplines and rewards and they see their parents continuing to work together to resolve any problems.
As parents we are often required to put the needs of our children before our own and co-parenting requires even greater selflessness from both parties. The key to successful co-parenting is for the parties to sever their personal relationship from the new co-parenting relationship. However, the prospect of building a new relationship, which involves making shared decisions and having civil communication, from the ashes of a personal relationship fraught with mistrust and acrimony can be overwhelming. Fortunately, there are organisations such as Parenting Apart Programmes and even co-parent coaching available to support parents through this process. You may also wish to create a co-parenting agreement to help you align expectations and address potential issues before they arise.
If successful co-parenting can be achieved, then the benefits for the children are immeasurable.
What steps can be taken to ensure co-parenting is successful?
- Park emotions. This is undoubtedly the hardest part of co-parenting but probably the most vital. The key here is for the parents to focus on the child’s best interests and needs by ensuring that their personal feelings do not impact on behaviour and communication between them. Having a sounding board such as a good friend or even a therapist or coach is useful; parents should never use their children as a sounding board nor expect them to be messenger.
- Positivity. Parties should never speak in negative or derogatory terms about their ex-partner to their children. It is important that the children are free to have a relationship with both parents.
- Good communication. As difficult as it may seem, co-parents must reopen lines of communication and be balanced in initiating or responding to any communications received. Sometimes the filter of emotion makes it easy to perceive messaging as demanding or even threatening. With this in mind, it is important that a co-parent carefully considers any communication received and how to phrase the response. They should think a few steps ahead and about the impact on the child if they press send without reflecting. Demands should be rephrased as requests or ideas and a co-parent should be prepared to listen to the other, even if they do not wish to hear their views. Communications must be child focused. They are not an opportunity to vent about the separation.
- Consistency. Children need continuity of structure, so it is important that parents ensure consistency between the two homes in terms of rules, discipline, routine. Any major decisions such as medical needs, education, financial issues need to be dealt with jointly. There are always going to be issues that are difficult to agree and keeping the lines of communication open is important. If these issues are insurmountable there are other options available to assist such as mediation or even arbitration.
- Be organised. It is important to ensure that the transition between households is as smooth as possible for the children. Co-parents need to think ahead and ensure the children understand the routine and are packed in advance to ensure no last minute panics. If possible, co-parents should drop off a child at the start of the changeover rather than the child being picked up. This will minimise a child feeling like they are being taken away from the other parent.
- Stress busting. It can be difficult for a co-parent to keep cool when having to deal with an ex-partner who has hurt them and is able to still “push buttons”. Having a healthy go-to stress relief method will help.
What are the options for resolving co-parenting disputes
If the co-parents are not able to establish a good working relationship despite their best efforts and the support of third parties, then there are formal options that can be explored.
In mediation, the discussions between you and the other parent will be facilitated by a trained mediator who is skilled at helping people resolve their issues when feelings are running high and cooperation is challenging. The process involves a series of meetings, conducted via video link during the pandemic rather than in-person.
A mediator does not express an opinion or make any judgment. Their expertise and experience enables them to provide information to help parties to understand the legal issues involved and provide guidance. They explore the pros and cons of any particular course of action and provide a written summary of the agreement reached which can be recorded in an order and approved by the court.
Mediation is quicker, less stressful and usually cheaper than issuing court proceedings to deal with these issues. It gives parties the ability to have input in agreeing long term plans or solutions that are in the family’s best interests.
This is a form of dispute resolution whereby the co-parents jointly appoint an arbitrator (a specialist family law practitioner) to resolve a specific issue. It is similar to court proceedings in that the arbitrator provides a decision the parties are bound by, like a court order. This is the key difference between arbitration and mediation. Arbitration can be used just to deal with one specific issue that the parties are struggling to resolve. For example if the parties have used mediation and agreed on all the issues bar one or more, then an arbitrator can be appointed to tie up the loose ends.
Like mediation, arbitration is generally quicker, less stressful and more cost effective than the last resort of a final court hearing. The parties have a say in the choice of arbitrator and the issues to be resolved and control in terms of venue, date and time.
If there are no issues in terms of domestic abuse, anyone wishing to issue a court application in relation to children issues first needs to consider with a mediator whether mediation could assist.
If mediation is deemed inappropriate, then a party may issue a court application. The case is listed for an initial hearing known as a first hearing dispute resolution appointment (FHDRA). Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, listing to FHDRA usually took 6-8 weeks. The court would also order Cafcass to prepare a safeguarding report involving initial enquiries with the police and social services, to ensure there are no issues of concern, and telephone interviews with both parents to ascertain the issues.
If the report raises no issues of concern, the FHDRA is used to consider how the case should proceed; whether the parties can agree issues then and there and draw up a final order or whether the court needs to hear evidence to determine the issues at a further hearing.
Where possible, court proceedings are the last resort
If a final court hearing was required pre-COVID, it would take several months to be listed. Now, whilst they are conducting hearings during this time, the courts’ capacity is severely restricted and there is a considerable backlog. In addition, it is anticipated that a record numbers of new cases will be issued as a result of the impact that lockdown has had on relationships and the increase in domestic abuse incidents.
Court proceedings should always be a matter of last resort. The pressures that COVID-19 has placed on the system reinforces the need for co-parents to work even harder try and resolve any issues by using the support of specialist organisations or through alternative dispute resolution such as mediation or arbitration.
Contact a family law specialist
If you would like advice about creating a co-parenting agreement or resolving disputes related to childcare, please contact Caroline Young or another member of our Family Law team. Our team includes trained mediators and collaborative law experts and we are a member of Resolution.