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When relationships break down how do you avoid contact issues between a child and stepparents and stepsiblings?

Following the breakdown of a relationship, the focus of the parties should be on trying to make the transition as smooth as possible for any children involved. Depending on their age, the children are likely to feel confused and unsure about what will happen next. It is therefore important that they are provided with the reassurance that they need. Information regarding how best to inform children about a separation can be found via the Relate website at https://www.relate.org.uk/relationship-help/help-separation-and-divorce/talking-about-separation/telling-children .

Where the family unit is one that involves stepparents and/or stepsiblings, it can make matters more complicated. This means it is more important than ever that the relationship breakdown is managed in as calm and sensitive manner as possible, and that the issues relating to the children are kept separate from any other issues. In the majority of cases, where a child has had a long-term relationship with a stepparent and/or stepsiblings, it will be in their best interests to maintain these relationships.

Ideally, the stepparent’s role within the family unit will have already been defined during the course of the relationship. If a couple are married, one way of formalising this is for the stepparent to acquire parental responsibility for their stepchildren. This gives the stepparent the same duties and responsibilities as a biological parent. If the couple’s relationship subsequently breaks down, it means they can continue to take on a full parental role and maintain a permanent presence in their stepchildren’s lives.

Parental responsibility is obtained by either:

  • Signing a Parental Responsibility Agreement with the child’s parents, or those with parental responsibility for the child.
  • Making an application to the court for a Parental Responsibility Order, which the court will consider.

However, if separating couples encounter difficulties in agreeing contact between the child and stepparent or stepsiblings, then mediation can be helpful in assisting a family to reach an amicable agreement as to what contact arrangements should take place.

If contact issues persist, then an application can be made to the court for a Child Arrangements Order to determine the issue. Such an application should be considered as a last resort however, given the impact that such proceedings can have on the couple’s relationship and the children.

If an application is made, it is likely that a CAFCASS (the court advisory service on children matters) or local authority report will be required. This provides recommendations to the court as to what contact should take place. Such a report is likely to take into account the wishes and feelings of the child or children, depending on their age. Following this, the court will make a decision on what contact, if any, should take place, with the child’s welfare being the paramount consideration.

Given that every child contact dispute is different and individual circumstances vary greatly, we would always urge couples to seek early advice from a family solicitor following the breakdown of a relationship.

If you would like to discuss child contact issues in more detail with one of our solicitors, we can arrange an initial one-hour consultation for a fixed fee of £50 (Incl. VAT). Please contact us on 01444 472700 or email info@tisshawssolicitors.co.uk.

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