When couples separate, we act for one parent when there is a disagreement relating to arrangements for their child. Parents often contact us at a very early stage in the separation process (and sometimes before they have actually separated) and we can provide information which helps them plan the way ahead in a child centred way.

Some parents only contact us when an existing arrangement deteriorates. Whatever the circumstances, a highly trained and experienced child law solicitor will provide advice keeping the welfare and best interests of the child at the centre of that advice. Whilst that advice will always safeguard the interests of our client, it will also be informed by the requirement to take account of the child's wishes and feelings.

Safeguarding the mental health of children

As my experience in the practice of child law has developed, so has my awareness of the mental impact upon children of separation where conflict is high and/or where, for whatever reason, there is little or no contact between the child and one parent. It is the responsibility of those of us who give such advice in relation to a child to do so with that child at the centre of the decision-making process and to work alongside other professionals to safeguard their wellbeing.

My advice to any parent who finds themselves in a situation of conflict with the other parent regarding arrangements for their child is:-

Seek expert advice as quickly as possible.

This advice could be from a range of sources including legal, medical, psychological, counselling and educational. Solicitors can help you to understand the rules and options available to you in terms of dispute resolution. Doctors can provide advice and signpost specific medical services if you are concerned that your own or your child's mental health is suffering.

Psychologists can provide advice when there are more serious mental health concerns s for your child and what steps you can take to help your child moving forward. Counsellors can provide support to you and/or your child and teachers can provide feedback as to how your child is doing in the neutral, school environment and can bring in additional support such as a Child Support Worker (CSW) for your child to speak with on a regular basis.

Try and maintain an open mind as to the available options in terms of the arrangement that would work best for you and your child.

You may feel strongly that, for example, the other parent has not played such a significant role in directly caring for the child whilst you were still together and they are therefore not capable of caring for the child post-separation. Separation is an adjustment for everyone in the family, including the other parent and it may be worth trying out different arrangements to see what works best for you all. It may also be the case that as your child gets older the arrangements will have to change in order to accommodate the child's changing lifestyle and needs.

If direct communication with the other parent is difficult and solicitors are involved, there are a wide range of options for resolving any dispute relating to your child.

These include negotiation, collaboration, mediation, arbitration and, as a last resort, litigation. Your solicitor will be able to advise you as to which dispute resolution method would be most suited to the particular circumstances of your family.

If a child (of any age) is capable of forming and expressing a view and wishes to do so, then their view must considered.

    The weight to be attached to that view will depend upon a number of factors including the child's age and the nature of the matter in relation to which their view is given. The views of the child (who is capable of expressing a view and who wishes to do so) must be heard whether a dispute is negotiated or litigated. A court will not make a final decision in relation to a (view forming and expressing capable) child unless they have been given the opportunity to express a view.

    It is, in my opinion, important for both solicitors and psychologists who routinely practise in the area of parental separation, to have an understanding of each other's work so that we can assist each other in helping our clients and, in turn, their children. By working collaboratively with our clients and those in our care, we can help children through these difficult times and support their mental health.


    Sarah Lilley