The advent calendars are already in the shops prompting many separated parents to start thinking about what they will be doing with their children on Christmas Day. Each parent will imagine opening presents with the children on Christmas morning, and unless they are in the tiny minority who can contemplate actually spending the day with their former partner, one parent is always going to be disappointed. The good news is that if you are starting to think about arrangements now, there is a reasonable chance that through one of the many routes available to you, a firm plan will be in place by the time those first doors of the advent calendar are being opened.
The first option is to try to come to an agreement with your former partner. Any lawyer will always tell you that whatever agreement is reached should always be recorded in writing, even if that is just an email trail. The best arrangements are those which put the needs of the children first and allow them to spend time with each parent over the Christmas period. This is achievable in a variety of ways.
Christmas Child Arrangement suggestions
If you live close to the other parent, the children can spend part of the day with each of you. This works well provided that there is transport (if necessary) and that the children (and you!) do not spend too long travelling. One common arrangement is that the children spend Christmas Eve and Christmas morning with one parent, and Christmas afternoon through to Boxing Day evening with the other.
If travelling on Christmas Day is not an option, the children could travel on Christmas Eve afternoon and/or Boxing Day morning. This plan usually means that the parents agree to alternate the years so that the children have the Christmas Day experience with each parent every other year. Some children in this situation have ‘two Christmas Days’, but the increasing importance of Christmas Eve with the arrival of ‘Christmas Eve boxes’ onto the UK Christmas scene, means that this option is becoming more palatable. It’s also worth remembering that in the not so distant past – the Victorian era – Boxing Day was the proper day to open boxes of presents!
The reality is that with a two week break for school age children over the festive period there should be ample time for the children to spend with each parent. However, the emotive nature of Christmas Day, the wishes of the children, family traditions and the wish for children to see wider family members all combine to make this a notoriously difficult plan to agree. So what are the options if you and the other parent can’t agree an arrangement?
Mediation for Christmas Contact Arrangements
One idea is to try mediation. This is a scheme whereby a third party, such as a family mediator or a barrister or solicitor qualified as a mediator, acts as an independent third party whose aim is to help parents come to an agreement. If you have already tried to resolve the issue with the other parent directly, you might have a fair idea of how likely this is to be successful. It may rest on how far apart you and the other parent are in terms of your proposals, and what the character of each of you is like in terms of your willingness to change your position. If talking it through with assistance is not likely to help, and bearing in mind that time is limited before Christmas is upon us, the remaining options are arbitration or an application to the court.
Court hearings on Christmas Contact
Applying to the Court for Christmas contact is one well known method of getting a decision about how much time a child should spend with each parent. The difficulty is that the courts are now overloaded with serious cases concerning the welfare of children, meaning disputes about Christmas are relatively low on the list of priorities. If your case is already in proceedings, you should speak to your solicitor or direct access barrister now about sorting out Christmas arrangements. If you are lucky the Court may still be able to list your case for a hearing before Christmas. If you have not yet issued proceedings, it is highly unlikely that the Court will now be able to hear your case before Christmas. Many Court centres across the country are facing delays of 3 months or more before cases come before them for a first hearing.
Arbitration as an alternative
A highly effective alternative available to you is to use a Family Arbitrator. Arbitrators are experienced family law specialists (solicitors or barristers) who are qualified and approved to make binding decisions in cases concerning children. You can find out more about the scheme at IFLA.org.uk. You and the other parent can either agree on a particular Arbitrator or ask the Institute of Family Law Arbitrators (IFLA) to nominate an Arbitrator local to you. Each parent then takes the following simple steps:
- Sign an agreement to arbitrate
- Agree a fee with the Arbitrator’s clerk
- Prepare and send statements for the Arbitrator which set out what you think should happen over the Christmas and New Year Holiday and why
- Either attend for a short hearing with the Arbitrator, or ask for a written decision to be sent to you
The benefits of arbitrating your Christmas contact arrangements
- There will be a fixed fee which is agreed in advance, is shared equally between the parents (unless they agree some other division of costs) and is much less expensive than going to Court with representation. (The fee to issue Court proceedings is currently £215 and lawyers fees will be on top of that.)
- There is no pressure on you to come to an agreement; you will tell the Arbitrator what you think is best for the children and why, and the Arbitrator will make the decision.
- The Arbitrator’s decision (which is known as a Determination) can be with you within 48 hours of your hearing or your statements being received by the Arbitrator. That is quite something!
- If you choose to attend the Arbitration in person, it can be arranged at short notice and at a time and place to suit you and the other parent. You can attend the Arbitration with legal representation or by yourself – an Arbitration is a much less stressful experience than a Court hearing. Your case will be the only one that day.
- The Arbitration Agreement sets out that the Determination is binding on both parties.
The clerks at Barrister For Me are taking bookings now for Christmas contact Arbitrations and can assist with any queries you may have about the scheme. Please contact them for details and to find out about the fixed fees.
Julie Stather MCIArb | Arbitration