The magic of Christmas can be ruined for many children as they get caught up in a bitter tug of war between their estranged parents.
Imagine the stress they could face if they become the unwilling prize in a fight between the two people they love the most – their mum and dad.
Sadly, it’s still the case that some parents use their children as a way of getting back at their estranged partner, but if they stop to think, they should realise that all they are doing is causing upset and heartache all round. If they go too far they could damage their relationship with their children and even have their contact restricted by the courts.
It’s essential that parents put their differences aside and do what’s best for the children. That means talking, planning and showing goodwill to avoid potential conflict.
It’s often the case that both parents want their children with them at the same time and neither is prepared to compromise. The most common dispute is over where the children will spend Christmas Day.
Fathers who don’t see their children very often throughout the year want to make up for it at Christmas when they’re off work, but mothers can resent handing the children over at such a special time when they’ve had them through the ordinary periods.
Many parents agree to take turns in having the children over alternate Christmases. Others have them for a few days each. It doesn’t matter how you divide the time up as long as it is fair and done in the child’s best interest.
It’s best to keep arrangements as simple as possible and avoid handovers on Christmas Day itself when children are likely to be excited and pre-occupied with their presents.
If parents feel there could be a problem then they should start talking as soon as possible to reach an agreement. The worst thing to do is leave it until the last minute and then find you need to take court action.
Family lawyers often get calls from panicking parents just a few days before Christmas asking for an urgent court application because their partner is refusing to co-operate. This kind of hasty action isn’t welcomed by the courts.
Court action should only be a last resort. The best approach is to reach an amicable agreement, weeks in advance. That reduces stress and if it’s necessary to seek legal advice or mediation then it can be done in plenty of time so there’s no sense of panic which can often filter through to the children.
Parents should also realise that the courts are prepared to take action against anyone who denies reasonable access to estranged mothers or fathers.
The law gives family courts powers to resolve differences between parents over such things as who the child should see, how often and under what conditions. The measures re-emphasise the family law principle that the well-being and interests of the child are of paramount importance rather than the personal interests of either parent.
If one of the parents suffers a financial loss from the other’s failure to comply with a contact order, the court has the power to award compensation. The court can also impose an unpaid work requirement on the person who breaches the contact order.
Fathers should also be reassured that family courts are not prejudiced against them as is sometimes thought. A recent study carried out by the Ministry of Justice found that there was no evidence of bias. Instead, it was clear that courts start from the principle that there should always be contact unless there are over-riding reasons to the contrary.
Nevertheless, it is better for couples to reach an amicable agreement.
Parents should ask themselves if they want their children to remember Christmas as something magical or as a time of bitter conflict between mum and dad.
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The contents of this article is general information only. The information in this article is not legal or professional advice. The law may have changed since this article was published. Readers should not act on the basis of the information included and should obtain independent expert advice from qualified solicitors such as those within our firm.