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A Guide to Child Arrangement Orders

Published on 15 February 2021 | Modified on 14 December 2022

Written by Stacey Bennett
Child Solicitors

Child Arrangements Orders

When you separate from your partner, disputes may arise about where and with whom a child will live, or how much time they will spend with the other parent or another person with whom they do not live. This is more commonly referred to as ‘contact’, ‘custody’ or ‘child access’ and ‘residence’.

This guide explains the orders that the court can make and outlines the process involved in making an application to the court. It also details what will happen after the application has been issued.

What is a child arrangements order?

Child arrangements orders (CAO) regulate with whom a child is to live with, and/or spend time with. For example, if you and your partner have separated and you want your child to live with you, but you cannot reach agreement, then you will need to apply to the court for a CAO. The order will set out the arrangements for your child.

Who can apply for child arrangements orders?

  • Anyone with parental responsibility for the child can apply for an order, this includes:
  • The child’s mother.
  • The child’s father, provided he is named on the birth certificate or married to the mother.
  • Special Guardians.
  • A person married to the biological parent of the child.
  • A person who has a CAO in their favour will automatically have parental responsibility.
  • Anyone who does not have parental responsibility will first need to apply to court for permission to make an application for a CAO.

Orders regulating a child’s living arrangements

The court may regulate a child’s living arrangements by making any of the following CAO’s:

  • Naming one person with whom the child is to live.
  • Naming two people who live in the same household together, as persons with whom the child is to live.
  • Naming two persons who live in different households, as persons with whom the child is to live.

Types of contact the court can order:

  • Direct and indirect contact arrangements.
    Direct contact arrangements involve the child having contact with a named person by staying with or visiting them. Indirect contact is where the contact takes place by letter, e-mail, video, instant message or telephone. Although after the sudden reliance upon video contact to maintain relationships, there is a move to terming video contact as direct contact, which takes place remotely.
  • Overnight and visiting contact arrangements.
    Direct contact arrangements can involve the child visiting the person named in a CAO for a few hours or staying with them overnight. Arrangements are sometimes gradually extended to longer periods of time, ultimately leading to overnight stays.
    Supervised and unsupervised contact arrangements. The court can order contact arrangements to be supervised by a third party named in the CAO or it can order contact to take place via a contact centre.

Specific Issue and Prohibited Steps Orders

If you are in dispute about an issue that does not relate to where your child should live or with whom they should have contact there are two further orders you may wish to consider. These are Specific Issue Orders (‘SIO’) and/or Prohibited Steps Orders (‘PSO’).

Specific Issue Orders

If you wish to make a change or exercise your Parental Responsibility and you can’t reach an agreement with the other parent you can apply to the court to make the decision. Examples of issues that can be addressed are:
Disputes relating to your child’s religious upbringing.
Disputes about changing your child’s registered name.
Disputes relating to education, such as which school your child will attend.
Issues relating to medical treatment.
Disputes relating to internal and external relocation.

Prohibited Steps Orders

If you wish to prevent or reduce the ability of the other person with parental responsibility to do something in relation to your child, you can apply to the court to stop the other parent. Examples of situations in which you could apply for a PSO include:

  • Choosing a particular course of medical treatment.
  • Changing your child’s school.
  • Deciding your child’s religious upbringing.
  • Relocating your child.
  • Changing your child’s name.

Who can apply?

Anyone with parental responsibility for the child can apply:

  • The child’s mother.
  • The child’s father, provided he is named on the birth certificate or married to the mother.
  • A person married to the biological parent of the child.
  • A person who has a Child Arrangements Order in their favour will automatically have parental responsibility (please see our CAO guide for more information on this).
  • A Special Guardian.
  • Anyone who does not have parental responsibility will first need to apply to court for permission to make an application.

How to apply for child arrangements orders?

Mediation information and assessment meeting (MIAM): Before issuing an application, a prospective applicant must attend a MIAM, unless an exemption applies. At this meeting a mediator assesses whether other forms of dispute resolution can assist in resolving the dispute.
Application to the court: If a party refuses to attend the MIAM or an exemption applies or a mediator considers that other methods of dispute resolution are not suitable, an application must be made to the court. The application is made by sending a complete C100 Form along with the fee of £215 to court. In the form the applicant will specify which orders they are seeking and detail the disputed issues.

Gatekeeping and Allocation Hearings: The application will be reviewed by a Gatekeeper Judge or Legal Adviser. They will determine from the written application what further steps should be undertaken prior to the FDR. This may include asking a court welfare officer (also known as a Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (CAFCASS) officer) to carry out safeguarding checks. Such checks often involve the officer speaking to the parents, police officers and local authorities. These checks will help identify any potential risks in this case.
After the checks have been carried out there will be a paper gatekeeping hearing. Parties will not be required to attend this hearing. It is simply a paper exercise for the Gatekeeper Judge or Legal Adviser. They will consider the information from the CAFCASS officer and decide who should hear the application and determine the best timetable for the case.
The Judge or Adviser could order that the parents take part in certain programmes such as the Separated Parents Information Programme, ask the CAFCASS officer to prepare a welfare report (also known as a Section 7 report), list the case for a first hearing or directions hearing or ask that the parties attend a Settlement Conference. The court will then notify the parties about the timetable for the case.

First Hearing Dispute Resolution Appointment (FHDRA): The purpose of the FHDRA is to identify the issues in dispute and try to resolve them as quickly and inexpensively as possible. The CAFCASS officer will attend.

At the FHDRA, the CAFCASS officer and the judge will try to help the parties to resolve the issues. If an agreement can be reached about all or part of the dispute, the court can make an order recording the agreement.

If agreement cannot be reached, the court will identify the remaining issues and any further evidence it requires to resolve them. It is common for the court to order parties to prepare statements and to gather any evidence that they propose to rely upon. CAFCASS may also be ordered to prepare a report on specific issues. At the end of the FHDRA, depending on the issues for resolution, the court will either schedule a dispute resolution appointment or a final hearing.

Dispute Resolution Appointment (DRA): A DRA is usually scheduled if CAFCASS have been directed to produce a report to assist the court in deciding the issues in dispute. The court will first identify the extent to which the dispute can be narrowed or resolved. The court will resolve or try to narrow the issues by hearing evidence from the parties. If an agreement is reached, the court will make an order reflecting the parties’ agreement. If no final agreement is reached the court will direct the parties to file any further evidence and schedule a final hearing.

Final hearing: Once all relevant evidence has been prepared and submitted to the court, a final hearing will be held. A judge will consider all of the evidence and make a decision about the issues in dispute.

The court may hear oral evidence from the parties and sometimes from other witnesses. The CAFCASS officer may be required to give evidence if the court considers that necessary. After hearing the evidence and listening to the legal arguments, the judge will make an order to decide the issues in dispute.

Our specialist divorce and family law solicitors are here to support you every step of the way & answer any questions you may have. We understand that every case is different and we seek to provide a personalised solution just for you, receive tailored family law from experienced lawyers today. Get in touch here.

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