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Cutting Through Complexity

Doctor Foster went to Gloucester

11th December 2017

Beth Bell discusses how best to protect children’s interests following a relationship breakdown in Essence Magazines December/January 2017-18 issue.

Over 7 million viewers tuned in to watch the recent series finale of BBC One’s gripping production Doctor Foster.

Series one focuses largely on GP Gemma Foster’s desire for revenge after discovering that her husband is having an affair, and in that infamous dinner party scene viewers revelled as cheating husband Simon got his comeuppance. However, in series two Gemma and Simon’s bitter feud makes for increasingly uncomfortable viewing, as it becomes clear that the couple’s young teenage son is being caught in the cross-fire.

Sadly it is often the case the child is overlooked in the midst of relationship breakdown and their best interests ignored.

Divorce can be a hugely stressful and upsetting time for the adults involved, however it is important that regardless of any ill-feeling between them parents are able to put on a united front for their child and remember that their role as co-parents continues.

It is also important for parents to be mindful of the central role that they each have to play in their child’s life. This is firmly reflected in legislation and case law. When a court is asked to determine issues concerning the upbringing of a child, such as with whom they are to live or otherwise spend time, there is a strong presumption that both parents should be involved. The presumption is rebuttable if a court is persuaded that it would be contrary to the child’s best interests, however an extremely high threshold is set in that regard. It does not automatically follow, for example, that a parent who has been violent towards the other should no longer spend time with their child (though a court will carefully consider whether appropriate safeguards need to be put in place in those circumstances).

A family solicitor will encourage their client to put their own emotions to one side and focus, objectively, on the needs of the child following a relationship breakdown. Parents should speak positively of each other, and the child should feel able to discuss the other parent and time spent with them without fear that this will upset the other parent, or cause them to become angry or jealous.

It goes without saying that parents should not involve their child in ‘adult conversations’ such as those in relation to the divorce or financial matters. If the family are still living together in one house then such discussions should take place between parents at appropriate times and not in front of the child. It is likely to be in the whole family’s interests if communications can be kept constructive and civil.

A young child in particular may find the relationship breakdown scary and confusing, and it is important to reassure them that although day-to-day life may change, moving forward they remain loved by both parents and both parents will always be there for them. If a child (of any age) is displaying signs of struggling to cope then it may be helpful to seek professional support, for example from a GP or child counsellor, and it can also be useful to speak to the child’s school and make them aware of the situation so that they can help put appropriate support in place.

Many parents assume that the court will automatically make an order in relation to their child as part of the divorce, however that is not the case. Divorce and finance proceedings are entirely separate from proceedings concerning a child, and matters are not heard by the court ‘as a package’. Also it is not always necessary for solicitors to be instructed in relation to arrangements for a child. Though many people will choose to have a solicitor represent them in relation to the divorce and financial matters it does not necessarily follow that discussions with the other parent regarding the child need to take place through solicitors as well. If both parties agree on where the child is to live and when the other parent will see them then there is no need for third parties such as solicitors or the court to be involved. Equally, even if both parties are not in agreement it may not be the case that solicitors are needed, and family solicitors will encourage parents to endeavour to resolve issues between themselves and agree a mutually acceptable (and child-centric) way forward. Mediation can be a helpful alternative forum for reaching an agreement.

In the unfortunate event that an agreement cannot be reached then the Family team at Mundays are here to help.

Top tips for the festive period

If you are divorcing then the festive period is likely to be an especially difficult time, for you and your child, and also for the wider family. Whether you are continuing to live together under the same roof or one of you has recently moved out of the family home, the situation can be incredibly hard.

  • As hard as it may be, try to put aside your own emotions and animosity. Bear in mind that your child wants to spend quality time with both parents and it is important that they feel comfortable about doing so without fear of causing either parent upset.
  • If you are living apart then endeavour to agree arrangements for your child, such as where they are to spend key days over the festive period, and with whom, as early as possible. If difficult discussions are left to the last minute then it is likely to make matters more stressful, and possibly lead to confrontation and upset which could otherwise be avoided.
  • You don't have to make grand plans or do anything out of the ordinary over the festive period - your child just wants to celebrate with the ones they love, and to feel secure.
  • The old adage, “the more the merrier” is worth bearing in mind at this time of year. Consider inviting family and friends round to provide support (and a busy and noisy distraction) for both you and your child.
  • Resist the urge to compete with each other when it comes to buying presents. A good strategy is to inform each other of your intentions to avoid duplication. Ideally, a shared gift from both of you will send positive and reassuring signals that you are on talking terms.
  • Change can be a good thing - don’t feel beholden to old family traditions or be afraid to find fresh ways of doing things. If you are no longer living together then position the idea of having individual celebrations which each of you as a fun and exciting extension of the festivities.
  • Make plans for when your child is not with you. It’s important for them to feel assured that you are ok, and still having a nice time over the festive period, when they are with the other parent.

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