When parties with children separate they should try to enter into practical and child focused arrangements between themselves in regard to the care and welfare of their children. Arrangements should be structured and practical but also allow some flexibility. Children have a right to a meaningful relationship with both parents and any parenting arrangements should reflect this principle.
For some parents, where there is a disagreement in respect of future parenting arrangements, the Family Law Act requires them to attend family dispute resolution, which is also known as “mediation” before embarking on making an application in court for parenting orders. In Tamworth, mediation takes place at “Centacare”.
If parties are able to reach consensus at mediation they will enter into a “parenting plan” which they both sign and date. A parenting plan can include details on where children live, how they will communicate with the non-resident parent and arrangements for birthdays and holidays. There may also be a review date built into the parenting plan which allows the parties to revisit the parenting arrangements at a later date to assess what is working well or whether something needs to be changed.
There are some situations where mediation is unsuitable. For example, where children relocate without the other parent’s knowledge or where they are being withheld by a parent for an extended period of time without a valid reason, or if there are significant safety concerns about children being exposed to family violence, abuse or neglect when they are in the care of the other parent. Legal advice should be sought as to whether an application to the court should be made under these circumstances.
If a parenting plan is working well it can be made into “consent orders”, which are prepared by a family lawyer and filed in the court. Once parenting orders are made by the court they are legally enforceable and should be followed carefully. There are penalties for contravening parenting orders which may include a significant fine or a period of imprisonment for example.
There are very limited circumstances where parenting orders can be changed once made by the court. In this situation the party bringing an application to amend or set aside such orders would need to demonstrate a significant change in circumstances in bringing their application as courts do not wish to expose children to endless litigation.
All parenting arrangements, whether imbued in a parenting plan or in court orders, must always regard the best interests of the child as the paramount consideration. Parents should always enter into negotiations with the other parent with this principle firmly in mind.
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