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Our family solicitors have written this helpful guide to help you understand child custody.

What is child custody law?

Firstly, it may surprise you to learn there is actually no such thing as child custody any more. As of April 2014, it is referred to as Child Arrangement Options, or Child Residency. However, we’ll refer to it as custody in this blog for simplicity.

In the many cases, parents preference is for joint custody (or residency), which enables a child to spend an equal amount of time with each parent. This also allows both parents to participate in any decision-making which may affect the child, such as decisions over school or medical choices. Child custody law determines who should be responsible for the care and charge of a child after a divorce or separation.

What is Joint Residency?

The good news is that most child residency court cases end amicably. Usually the outcomes are either agreed residency or joint residency. Joint residency is the preferred outcome, as it means the child can spend an equal amount of time with both parents. This is in the best interests of most children. It also allows both parents to be part of decision-making.

By giving both of the parents an equal share in the physical care of their child, all legal rights, responsibilities and obligations to the child are split. This means joint residency can be a very balanced situation. However, if parents are unable to decide on what living situation is best for their child, or children, a court has to decide on their behalf.

Child custody disputes

Any court decision is ultimately based on what is best for the child. In disputed cases each parent is individually assessed before a decision is made on which parent should be given custody of the child. Sometimes both parents will be deemed suitable and have to share the residency.

It’s very important to bear in mind that the court has no preference as to which parent should be the one with whom the child should live. The decision is always based on which parent shows they are most capable of meeting the child’s needs.

Couples in dispute over arrangements for their children must first seek and explore mediation before a court will consider an application. Mediation can help parents to reach an agreement that is best for both of them without involving a court. Mediation also means the process is ultimately less expensive. If the parents can’t reach an agreement, the decision goes to the court, which performs an assessment.

The child custody assessment

The court’s assessment of a parent is based on three main elements:

  • a parent’s capacity for parenting
  • whether a parent can meet the child’s development
  • wider family and environmental factors

For parental capacity, the court will look at:

  • ability to provide basic care
  • whether they can ensure the child’s safety
  • emotional warmth and level of stimulation
  • the parent’s level of guidance and boundaries
  • and stability of the parent

Wider factors normally include:

  • the family history
  • the extended family
  • housing situations
  • employment status
  • and level of income

The assessment is normally done by interviewing parents and carers, as well as assessing the whole family, observing the parent-child interacting in various situations, and of course, interviewing the child. The interviews are usually carried out by independent assessors appointed by the court. As part of the assessment, the court may also consider whether maintenance payments are due from the non-resident parent, and what level of contact they are allowed.

Changing custody arrangements

Changing a child’s residency arrangement after a court decision is definitely possible as there are many factors that may affect a change to the custody arrangements. For instance, a parent might move or change jobs. In order to make a change to custody arrangements, the parent seeking the change will need to submit evidence of how any of these factors could affect the stability of the child.

If you are thinking of applying for custody of your child or facing a dispute or custody battle, Arlingsworth’s family solicitors can advise you on the best course of action and answer any questions. Call our family lawyers on 01273 696 962 today, or you can also call our weekend lawyers on 07502 333 636.