Legal Information Centre


07 October 2008 by Mary Heaney

Acting in a child's best interest

  • child looking out of a window
Sometimes it can be difficult to know how best to act to ensure child's best interests but consulting a good family solicitor can help ensure minimum disruption to their life and help you to understand the courses of action available.

Problems relating to the care of children can be emotionally testing and it can be difficult to know how best to act to ensure the child’s best interests are protected without disrupting their life in any way.


Taking legal advice does not necessarily mean that the route to resolution will be prolonged and impersonal. If it proves necessary, hearing a matter in court by useful for gaining an impartial decision.


Consulting a good solicitor can help ensure minimum disruption to a child’s life and help you understand the courses of action available and you can ensure that unnecesary measures are not pursued. A solicitor specialising in child law is essential to ensure that if court proceedings are taken they are as efficient as possible.


Parental responsibility


Parental responsibility is a key term in legal matters relating to children so it is useful to begin by clarifying its meaning.


Parental responsibility outlines the legal rights and responsibilities of a parent. Comprehensive detail on these rights and responsibilities is not provided by legislation, but covers issues such as providing a home and deciding on education and religion.


If more than one person has parental responsibility then decision-making and responsibility is shared. The birth mother of a child automatically has parental responsibility as does the father if the couple are married.


Unmarried fathers do not automatically have parental responsibility. An unmarried father can gain parental responsibility by:



  • being included on the birth register

  • through a written agreement on an official form between mother and father

  • obtaining a parental responsibility order through court


Residence


‘Residency’ rights detail who a child should live with while ‘contact’ dictates the non-resident parent’s visting conditions.


This is the most common area of child law parents have to deal with and can be best settled by the parents deciding between themselves. Frequently, however, matters are not this simple. Alternative means include mediation or going through court to obtain a residence order.


Whatever course proves necessary it is worthwhile seeking legal advice. Solicitors can help formalise agreements decided on between parents and if necessary provide representation for mediation or court proceedings.


Decisions more likely to reach court are those involving health issues, alcoholism or child abuse. Once there the child’s view may be taken into account, but it will be set against their age and experience. The primary consideration though will be what is in the child’s best interest, including how to maintain their daily routine.


With disgruntled fathers taking to rooftops in Batman costumes, it is a common misconception that there is a legal bias in favour of mothers. While it is true that the emphasis of care often falls with the mother, this is principally because they are usually the primary carer. Giving residency to the mother is therefore often the best way of guaranteeing the child’s lifestyle.


Care proceedings


Horror stories abound of innocent parents losing their children to care authorities over a minor incident or conversely of the authority’s failure to read the signs in time. As tragic as such incidents can be, they are rare examples of a system that essentially operates to protect children rather than victimise parents. With a solicitor’s advice, however, procedural errors can be quickly resolved or a local authority’s judgement can be tested in court.


A local authority will commence care proceedings if there is concern that a child is being harmed or will be harmed by a parent’s behaviour. Harm inflicted can be in the form of neglect or in physical, emotional or sexual abuse.


The first step will be the imposition of an ‘interim care order’ which is effective while social services investigate a case. This temporary order can last for eight weeks and is reviewed every 28 days after that, but is renewed without a court hearing if nothing has changed. It normally takes between nine and 12 months for social services to decide a case.





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