January 2019

Divorce lawyers demand greater child contact rights for extended family

Towards the end of 2018, we asked our members if they felt extended family should have greater contact rights to children, after divorce proceedings. 41% of respondents believed The Children Act of 1995 was ‘not fit for purpose,’ and over half felt extended family should be able to see their relatives without court intervention, with over 40% saying permission from one or both parents is all that should be required.

Current law demands that any friend or family member seeking contact with children have to apply through the courts. They must also provide evidence that the contact is in the child’s best interests.

Cath Karlin, founder of Cath Karlin Family Law specialists and CCS member said: “Part of the problem is many extended family members don’t even know they have any rights, or how to go about applying for contact through the courts. What we need is a transparent system where child contact for extended family is enshrined in law and is considered an expectation in the eyes of the law. This would normalise the process and encourage more family members to stay in touch with their relatives.

It would also be helpful if the courts provided a list of which extended family members can apply, to prevent any misunderstanding or ambiguity.”

80% of lawyers who took our survey felt that greater contact rights for extended family would provide more ‘support and security’ for children, particularly in single parent families. Others said it would help parents which childcare and provide greater financial security for the children.

Some lawyers have also warned that the current legal framework governing divorce encourages divisiveness in families, which often leads to one or both parents restricting access to children for other family members.

Cath Karlin continues: “The real problem is that court divorces tend to encourage conflict because there is always blame attached. Family members are expected to stand up in court and provide evidence against either parent, leading to bad blood and conflict. If there are children involved, this often results in one or both parents blocking contact. It’s desperately sad and ultimately it’s the children that suffer the most.

At CCS we see this as is a clear benefit of the collaborate approach, which bypasses the courts altogether. Collaborative divorce always puts the children first and minimises conflict between parents and family members by encouraging cooperation and compromise. There isn’t the same anger and resentment, and so extended family members are more likely to be granted contact rights following a divorce.”

However, changing the law does come with caveat. Some members argue the current system could come under strain if there was surge of applications coming from extended family. Others believe that encouraging more contact from extended family isn’t always a good thing.

Cath said: “I think it should be a given right that extended family keep in contact with their relatives, as long as it is in the interests of the children. However, it can cause additional problems. For example, when custody is split between the parents, adding extended family into the equation means parents will see their children even less. Extended family really comes into its own for single parent families who need extra support. Like anything, viewing these things on a case by case basis is always helpful.”

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