Contact and care disputes regarding your minor children for the school holidays
Holidays are approaching. It is that time of the year again where parents and children want to spend time together, relax, and have fun. This is usually easy to implement when parents and children live together. However, if that is not the case, it can become somewhat challenging for some and more for others. What can one do if the issue of holiday contact cannot be resolved where the parents are not living together? Read on for ways to avoid legal problems on the eve of Christmas.
The right of the child to spend time with both parents
Before dealing with the issue of the law and how it can be used to resolve issues, let us first look at the rights of a child. When dealing with any child matter, the law focuses on what is best for the child. The child’s best interest principle is stated in our Constitution and the Children’s Act in terms of legislation. Section 28 (2) of our Constitution states that “[a] child’s best interests are of paramount importance in every matter concerning the child.”
Furthermore, section 9 of the Children’s Act 38 of 2005 states that “[i]n all matters concerning the care, protection, and well-being of a child the standard that the child’s best interest is of paramount importance, must be applied.”
Therefore, in resolving any care and contact disputes regarding holiday contact, the focus must be on what is best for the minor child involved. And not the parents.
Resolving care and contact issues out of Court
At a very last resort, parties may approach the Court to resolve their care and contact issues. It can be a very challenging and tedious process, which outcome may not always be what you want it to be. That may apply to both parents. However, once the ruling has been made, the parties are bound by it. If the process was acrimonious, it could mean that neither party would be willing to negotiate a temporary change to contact should the need arise—for example, swopping days when there is a family wedding or birthday celebration.
The ideal is for the parents to be the architects of their parenting arrangement, not lawyers, social workers, or the courts. They know their lives and the child much better than anyone else and are best suited to find a workable solution. Each family is different. What would work for one family will not work for another. The children’s ages, the location of schools, parents’ homes, and jobs would differ vastly from that of other families. No one glove fits all when it comes to care and contact arrangements for minor children.
Parents sitting down with a view of resolving care and contact arrangements before the school holidays
The first advice we have to parents who are having challenges in resolving issues regarding holiday contact is to set up a meeting with each other. This is very important as it would give both parents a chance to hear the other parent’s view. Parents should try their best to avoid third parties getting involved. And when we say third parties, we include lawyers, social workers, magistrates, judges, etc. Once others get involved, the lines of communication may not be that easy. And many times, it is distorted.
Sitting on the same table provides the other parent with immediate suggestions and information needed to resolve the issue, not through a lawyer or a court. Only you and the other parent know what is workable. You know your schedule, your budget, the needs of the children and how far you can compromise. Not the attorney, advocate, or presiding officer. Their knowledge would be limited to the few pages presented or the few hours of consultation.
What is the disadvantage of seeking outside help?
If you and the other parent met and things were still not resolved, outside help would inevitably be needed. That same applies if a meeting is not possible due to the issue of domestic violence or an unwillingness of a parent to meet face to face. Outside help can be a mutual family friend, a family member both parents trust, or a trained mediator. A trained mediator could be a social worker, psychologist, attorney, or advocate. The Office of the Family Advocate can also assist. However, remember, some mediation services can be costly, and if there is a budget, you would have to do with only a few hours being spent on critical decisions.
Even if the services are free, remember, in that case, limited time would still be spent on your issues. If issues cannot be resolved within a few hours, more than likely, the mediator would advise that your either take their ad hoc recommendations or take the matter to Court. We are not discrediting mediation or litigation. However, we want the parents to try their utmost to resolve the issues they have before looking for outside assistance. But let us presume outside help is needed. In that case, let us properly look at mediation.
Having your care and contact issues formally mediated
Mediation is an excellent tool to resolve care and contact disputes between parents. This is especially so when a trained and experienced mediator is involved. However, it is not always necessary to have a professional mediator on board. For example, an attorney, advocate, social worker and so on. As previously stated, it can also be your priest, your neighbour, or a trusted family member. All parents and family dynamics are different. It would be unfair to state that expert mediators can only resolve all parental issues. That is illogical and has no factual basis, therefore.
However, should it be decided that a trained professional mediator is appropriate, then consider the following:
- Are both you and the other parent comfortable with the proposed mediator? It is very important that both parties are happy and comfortable with the mediator you will be approaching to assist in resolving your issues;
- Are the fees the mediator charges reasonable and sustainable according to your pockets? Not all mediators charge the same rate. Rates are, of course, based on experience, qualification, location and so on. However, it would not make sense to enlist the services of a mediator where you can only afford a single session. Some issues require two or three sessions, depending on the issues involved. If we are dealing with swopping a weekend, a single session may be appropriate. However, when dealing with something like relocation, maybe three different sittings would be appropriate; and
- Are you happy with the location of the mediator’s office or the use of virtual sessions (e.g. Zoom or Microsoft Teams)? For some, face to face mediation will yield the best results. The parties would be able to meaningfully engage with each other in the same room instead of using phone or computer monitors. However, virtual mediation sessions would be best for some, and they prefer it. They save time on travelling and do not have to take time off work.
Once you agree on the mediator, attend sessions with an open mind. Remember, you are in control and can decide your own destiny. Not your lawyers or a court of law. However, if mediation is unsuccessful, one would need to consider taking the matter to Court.
Taking your care and contact matters to Court
Going to Court on your care and contact matters has advantages and disadvantages. The one advantage is that it would bring whatever issue you have to finality. The disadvantage is that you may be unsuccessful and spend a fortune on your legal fees and potentially the other sides. Nonetheless, if mediation fails, or it is necessary to go to Court, here are some tips to consider when taking that route:
- First, receive proper advice on the legal issue you have at hand. It is important that you understand the issues involved and your legal recourse. It would be unfortunate if you take your matter to Court but do not understand what you are getting yourself into;
- Know exactly what you want. In other words, what Order do you want the Court to grant you? Is it primary care, shared care or reasonable contact?
- Ensure that you provide your legal representative with all the relevant facts to fight for your case. This would only be possible if the first two points above have been complied with; and
- Make sure that you are always kept abreast of your matter.
How will the Court decide the matter?
As always, the Court would decide your matter based on what is best for the minor child involved. As stated, section 9 of the Children’s Act states that “[i]n all matters concerning the care, protection, and well-being of a child the standard that the child’s best interest is of paramount importance, must be applied.”
And section 28 (2) of our Constitution states that “[a] child’s best interests are of paramount importance in every matter concerning the child.”
Furthermore, the Children’s Act 38 of 2005 places great emphasis on the child’s voice being heard in matters concerning that child. The Children’s Act states the following in this regard:
6 General principles
(5) A child, having regard to his or her age, maturity and stage of development, and a person who has parental responsibilities and rights in respect of that child, where appropriate, must be informed of any action or decision taken in a matter concerning the child which significantly affects the child.
10 Child participation
Every child that is of such an age, maturity and stage of development as to be able to participate in any matter concerning that child has the right to participate in an appropriate way and views expressed by the child must be given due consideration.
31 Major decisions involving child
(1) (a) Before a person holding parental responsibilities and rights in respect of a child takes any decision contemplated in paragraph (b) involving the child, that person must give due consideration to any views and wishes expressed by the child, bearing in mind the child’s age, maturity and stage of development.
In conclusion, should you take your matter to Court or be brought to Court by the other parent, you need to focus on what is best for the minor child. That can sometimes be very hard because in doing so, you must consider factors that do not support your case. For example, if the minor child has always been cared for by the other parent.
The bottom line is, focus on what is best for the minor child involved. And if speaking face to face and mediation does not work, then only then approach the Courts. You may, however, seek legal advice beforehand.