Changing who the child lives with

There is currently a lot of coverage of a case heard in a Bristol court, which was expected to result in the child living more fully with his father rather than his mother. Before the final hearing, the mother disappeared with the child, and it is thought they may be in the Cheltenham or Birmingham areas. More details on the case can be found here.

This is a very sad case, and we hope that it will be resolved for all involved as soon as possible. 

We often receive inquiries about the circumstances in which a court would change who the child lives with, and this case raises a number of important questions about the process. This Q&A provides parents with some more background about these situations.


Why do courts sometimes change which parent the child lives with?

It is very rare for a court to change the parent who the child lives with in a private family law case like this. Very few cases each year would see action taken to change who the child lives with, particularly in the case of younger children.

A decision to change who the child lives with is made only where the court sees this to be in the best interests of the child, with their welfare being the paramount consideration. Courts will only consider a transfer of residence once they have exhausted all other options, and tried whatever they can to try and get parents to compromise, or follow court orders.


Is it fair to change who the child lives with?

It is very hard for any parent not to live with their child day-to-day after separation, and difficult whenever a court has to intervene. As with other decisions taken by family courts though, it is not a question of whether an order is fair on either of the parents, but whether it is in the best interests of the child.

To change who the child lives with, the court has to weigh up the potential upheaval of a change of residence against the harm of leaving the child in an environment where they will not be supported to maintain a relationship with both parents. 

The court has to think about both the short and long term interests of the child, and which arrangements will be most likely to enable the children to thrive, and wherever possible, maintain a strong relationship with both parents.


What else can be done in these sorts of situations?

Courts are adversarial in nature; when parents in high conflict are placed into this environment, it can often be even more difficult to establish the cooperation that will be needed for them to parent together. This can be particularly true when both parents are representing themselves in court, which is now a common feature of the legal system.

The best solution is prevention, where possible; helping parents to resolve conflict before it reaches the point of no return. Services such as mediation, which try to support parents in coming to private arrangements outside of court, can be very valuable. Courses such as Separated Parents Information Programmes, which emphasise the importance of parents putting their children first and working together, also have a role in trying to disrupt patterns of conflict before they become entrenched. 

Unfortunately, not all parents are able to manage this process, and need involvement from the courts to achieve a resolution. In these instances, court intervention needs to be swift, balanced, and supportive. Courts also need to ensure that the orders they make for children are followed, which is often reported as a significant problem by many of our service users.



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