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08 April 2014

Cups of tea call time on hostile child proceedings

A recent case has highlighted the benefits that can be achieved when parents are able to step back from a difficult situation and discuss matters calmly and directly between themselves. 

In cases involving children, emotions are often highly charged, and so it can be easy for parents to quickly become embroiled in the legal equivalent of a tug of war, with the children being the rope in this analogy. 

The case of Re J and K (Children: Private Law) [2014] concerned twin 12-year-old boys and had begun following their parents' separation when they were just six-months-old.  The twins were born prematurely and their resulting health problems led to the breakdown of their parents' relationship.  The proceedings had generated 24 court hearings in over 10 years, covering issues including parental responsibility, contact and the extent to which the father would be involved in the boys' lives.  

Mrs Justice Pauffley, on becoming aware of the history of conflict between the parents suggested, at a hearing in November 2013, that when the boys were dropped off for or collected from a contact visit, each parent should be invited into the home of the other and offered a cup of tea.  The motivation behind this suggestion was to create a less hostile environment for the boys when they were switching between their parents' homes and to encourage discussions between their mother and father. 

Both parents responded positively to this idea and, when back in court in February 2014, the father reported that the contact order had been followed "to the letter" and that the boys were no longer being hostile or aggressive towards him.

Both parents gave evidence, as did the mother's husband and her mother, each acknowledging how elements of their (past) behaviour had not assisted, and expressing a willingness to improve their interpersonal relationships for the future.  The mother's view was that all the adults should get together, sit down and discuss all matters.  The father said that "certain things should have been done differently", and the maternal grandmother that we "have to forgive, and should move on". 

The parents' positive reaction to the Judge's simple suggestion had peeled away the mistrust and hostility which had developed over the course of the proceedings.  The Judge identified a number of matters that had contributed to the antipathy: including that as the boys were not physically robust in the first few years of their life the mother had been, understandably, intensely protective, leaving the father feeling excluded; and that the father's applications to the court were regarded as attacks by the mother and her family.  She went on to say that all of these factors led to "a downward spiral of alarming dimensions". 

Mrs Justice Pauffley further observed that the parents were so caught up in the dispute that they had not considered the impact on the boys or each other.  She expressed the view that "it would have been infinitely preferable, as the adults now agree, to have made allowances for whatever behaviour it was that caused such affront, to have forgiven the transgressor and, perhaps most significantly of all, to have opened appropriate communication channels to deal with the problem". 

When the parents began to talk they started to see matters from each other’s perspective.

Before the end of the hearing, the parents reached an agreement about the time the boys would spend with each of them.  The Judge, in approving the arrangements, expressed the view that she hoped that "future similar mistakes would not be made", and went on to say that "there is very little which frightens children more than the absence of appropriate parental guidance and firm boundaries about the things in life which matter most".

This case demonstrates the need for parents, no matter what the reason for the breakdown in their relationship, to discuss matters openly and to feel able to explain their feelings to the other from the outset.  That may not achieve an overnight solution, but it should avoid the hostile and protracted litigation that the lack of empathy and misunderstandings caused this family. 

If you are involved in a dispute concerning your children, Sue Andrews and the Family law team at B P Collins can provide advice and guidance to help you resolve matters and to restore the focus on the best interests of your children. Contact Sue on 01753 279046 or email familylaw@bpcollins.co.uk

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Email: enquiries@bpcollins.co.uk

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