Christmas can be a difficult time for separated parents, particularly if arrangements for children are not handled sensitively. Common issues that arise include:
- How will a child's time be divided between parents.
- Logistics for drop offs, picks ups and plans for travel within the UK.
- How will any international travel plans be accommodated, taking account of any continuing COVID-19 travel restrictions.
- How will time with extended family be accommodated.
- The presence of new partners and how this should be best managed.
- Plans for indirect contact such as telephone or video calls.
- The purchase of Christmas gifts.
Below we consider ways that parents can try to work co-operatively, in order to create the most positive experience for their children – and themselves – over the festive period.
Enter into discussions early
Whilst it may be tough raising the issue of arrangements for Christmas with an ex-partner, there is a greater chance of early resolution the earlier the discussions take place. There are various ways in which those discussions can be conducted as detailed below.
Seek help to minimise impact on children
Whilst many separated parents will seek to do all they can to minimise the impact of a separation on children, there will inevitably be issues to navigate particularly if it is the first Christmas a child is spending in different homes. Parents can work together with child therapists, including in the context of mediation in order establish mechanisms for supporting children. This is to ensure that child centred plans are put in place and all efforts are focused on enjoying the festive period rather than being distracted by background disputes.
Discussing matters with the help of a trusted third party
Although, ideally, parents will be able to reach an agreement between themselves, sometimes the assistance of a trusted third party, such as a family member or mutual friend can be invaluable to help each parent approach the issues in a more neutral way.
An independent mediator can be jointly appointed by the parents in order to facilitate discussions and explore options with a view to reaching an agreement. There are a number of ways in which the mediation can be conducted including with both parties being in the same meeting (whether remote or in person) together with the mediator, or shuttle mediation where the parties are in separate rooms and the mediator facilitates discussions by going between them. It is also possible for both parties to have solicitors present and certain mediators conduct child-inclusive mediation, where the child also speaks to the mediator, if it is considered appropriate (considering the age and maturity of a child) for a child's views to be directly taken into account.
Discussions between solicitors
If agreement cannot be reached without legal assistance, there can be direct discussions between the solicitors of the respective parents with a view to reaching an agreement. This is usually best arranged at a meeting (rather than in correspondence) whether remote or in person. Parents will often attend round table meetings; this does not necessarily mean that all parties are present in the same room and discussions can be conducted between solicitors with the parties in separate rooms if that is preferred. This is often an effective way to resolve a dispute.
In the event that agreement cannot be reached, applications to Court can be time consuming due to Court listing waiting times. Increasingly, arbitration may be a better option for resolving a dispute. Parties must agree to appoint an arbitrator to provide a determination in respect to a specific dispute. The advantage of arbitration is that it usually results in a far quicker resolution than waiting for a Court scheduled hearing. Furthermore, parties have control over the choice of arbitrator and generally the costs are less than pursuing a dispute through the Court system. Arbitration also provides finality to a dispute, whereas mediation will only bring a conclusion if agreement can be reached.
Put in place a formula to deal with future years
Wherever possible, it is preferable for separated parents to put in place an arrangement for the division of time during the Christmas holidays which can be applied annually. This may provide for example that Christmas Day is alternated, that the morning and afternoon are divided or that the Christmas period is spent with one parent and New Year with the other (and the arrangement alternated in future years). It may also make provision for indirect contact arrangements, such as telephone or video calls for the parent not spending time with the child. Such arrangements can be detailed in a 'Parenting Plan' or a Consent Order (a Court Order reached by agreement). It is also advisable for a similar formula to be put in place governing the division of other school holidays such as Easter, summer holidays and half terms.
Consider a Court application as a last resort
Wherever possible, avoiding Court is always preferable. However, if discussions between solicitors or mediation have not resulted in an agreement, and arbitration cannot be agreed, it may be that a Court application has to be made. If that is the case, the application should be made as early as possible to allow for any listing difficulties by the Court. Many last-minute applications end up being dealt with only weeks or days before Christmas which can cause significant distress for all parties – particularly as no plans can be made until there is a final determination. In the context of any application, the Court will want to be fully apprised and satisfied that alternative dispute resolution has been pursued.