Legal advice for parents from an Advocate regarding care and contact disputes during the December / January School Holidays
The end of the year marks the start of the holiday season. Schools are closing, and most parents will be using their annual leave. It is the ideal time to spend time with family and friends and just rest and have fun. If you have children, you also want to spend quality time with them. This is especially so if not much time was spent together during the year.
Ideally, both mom and dad would live in the same home as the children. However, that is not always the case. There are many reasons for that. It can relate to divorce, separation, or incompatibility. The list goes on. Regardless, each parent wants to spend quality time with their child during this festive season. And why should they not? Let us first deal with what divorced parents can do, then parents who were never married.
Parental Rights and responsibilities of divorced parents
In most cases, divorced parents would share parental rights and responsibilities of their minor children after they divorced. In other words, they would remain co-holders of parental responsibilities and rights over their minor children. Before the Court divorced the parents, it had to be satisfied that the arrangements regarding care and contact, maintenance and so on were satisfactory. In other words, it must be convinced that the arrangements are in the minor child’s best interest. The divorce parents are then left to care for the minor children as provided for in the divorce order. In most cases, there would be a consent paper with a parenting plan.
What happens if divorced parents have disputes regarding care and contact during the school holidays?
Divorced parents must stick to the care and contact arrangements outlined in the divorce order. If they do not, they will be contemptuous of the court order. The aggrieved party may lay a complaint at the police or launch a civil case for contempt of Court. This is best to be avoided. Nothing is limiting divorced parents from agreeing to alternative arrangements. However, it must be agreed upon. If issues arise, the parties need to revert to the terms of the Court Order.
Sometimes a divorce order incorporates a clause dealing with the appointment of a parenting co-ordinator, or facilitator. Usually, this person would assist the parents in resolving minor disputes when it comes to care and contact. This would be done without deviating from the principles laid down in the divorce order dealing with care and contact. They would be especially useful should there be a dispute regarding how to split the December holidays between the parents.
Can divorced parents change the terms of the Divorce Court Order?
If one of the divorced parents has an issue with the terms of the divorce court order, and they believe a change to the terms of the Order would be in the minor children’s best interests, then they may approach the Court to vary the Court Order. The Court would only vary it after it heard from both parents and is convinced that it is in the minor children’s best interests. Usually, a reason for a change would be that the minor child is much older, and circumstances have changed. An example of a change in circumstances is that the minor child changed schools, and a change in residency would be best for them.
If the divorce Order incorporated a clause dealing with the appointment of a parenting co-ordinator or facilitator, then the parent would first need to use them. That would, however, not be required if the change in the divorce order relates to something that the parenting co-ordinator or facilitator would not be able to assist the parents with.
What about parents who were never married?
Parents who were never married or married but separated do not have a court order to follow during the school holidays. It is hoped that they would be sensible and agree to an appropriate care and contact arrangement during the school holidays, which would suit both parents, especially the minor child. Separated parents who have issues with each other do not want to deal with the other parent, especially during the holiday season. However, it is unfortunate that the child is the one who suffers in the long run.
Parents must understand that any conflict between them negatively affects their children. This is what you want to avoid at all costs. However, if the parents cannot come to an agreement, they need to remain civil and use other tools, referred to next.
What can separated parents do if they cannot agree on care and contact issues for the December holidays?
Parents need to understand that the law looks at what is best for the child and not the parents. It is, therefore, the duty of separated parents to put aside their prejudices for the other parent for the sake of the child’s wellbeing. If, however, separated parents cannot see eye to eye on what is best for the child, external assistance is needed. If the external assistance does not help much, the Court needs to be approached. Let’s discuss external assistance.
Parents must first try to mediate the care and contact disputes
It is understandable that not all separated parents would be able to resolve a care and contact matter independently. Sometimes, one parent is just outright unreasonable and does not focus on what is best for the child. In such a case, we recommend that the parents see a mediator to assist them in resolving the dispute. The mediator can either be a social worker, an attorney, or a local religious leader. Whoever it is, there must be a concerted effort to resolve the matter from both sides. Both parents should have a chance to speak, ask questions and resolve whatever issues they may have. We know that it is not always possible to do so. However, compromise is the key.
What happens if the mediation fails?
Mediation should assist any couple in resolving their issues for the most part. However, if they cannot compromise, the Court needs to be approached to apply its legal mind and determine what is best for the child concerned. The Court may want the input of a childcare expert, for example, the office of the family advocate or a social worker from a welfare organization. After the Court heard what both parties had to say, it would rule on what was in the minor child’s best interest. It does not mean the court would rule in your favour. However, it is possible that the court may find a middle ground that neither party is happy with.
When to seek legal advice
We recommend that you seek professional legal advice when things cannot be resolved between the parents, even with the assistance of a parenting co-ordinator, mediator or facilitator. If you cannot afford a lawyer, or cannot find one that offers their services pro bono, then approach the Children’s Court. Matters concerning children are inherently urgent, and it would not benefit the parties, nor the child, if things are delayed, especially so if a court needs to get involved.
However, it does not mean that by seeing a lawyer, you must go to court. Maybe after consulting with the lawyer, you understand the law better and would be in a better position to resolve the matter on your own. The lawyer can also send the other party a letter. If that does not work, then approaching the court is justified.