Divorced or separated parents often struggle to see eye-to-eye when making decisions about their children. While it may be possible to resolve issues outside of court via one of the many dispute resolution processes, if an agreement cannot be reached, parents can apply for a court order to settle the matter. In response to accusations of unjust decisions being made in secret, a pilot scheme was launched in January 2023, allowing journalists to report on family court cases for the first time in the UK. The aim of the pilot was to improve transparency in the justice system; however, the decision has also shed light on the sheer breadth of cases being handled in family court.
If you are a divorced or separated parent, understanding the legal tools at your disposal can enable you to resolve matters faster. There are three main types of court orders regarding children that you can apply for under the Children Act 1989: a Child Arrangements order, a Specific Issue order and a Prohibited Steps Order.
Child Arrangements Order (CAO)
A CAO determines where a child lives and how, when and where they will spend time with the other parent. The living arrangements of children following a divorce or separation is often a contentious issue, and as such, it is no surprise that this is one of the most common orders handled by the family court. However, CAOs are not just limited to living arrangements. They can also be used to determine:
- how a parent has contact with a child, including in person or indirect contact (letter, phone, or email).
- when a parent can have other types of contact with a child, such as phone calls.
- how special occasions, such as birthdays and holidays, are managed.
When making these decisions, the court’s top priority is always the welfare of the children involved. In most cases, the court prefers for both parents to have a suitable level of contact with their children. However, if a parent is deemed to be a risk to the children concerned, the court will issue a “lives with” order in favour of the other parent.
It is not only parents who can apply, though. In the UK, a CAO can also be applied for by:
- a guardian or special guardian of the child.
- anybody with Parental Responsibility for the child.
- a person with whom the child has lived for three years or more.
- a person with the consent of everyone with parental responsibility.
- a spouse or civil partner of the child’s parent.
- a relative or local authority foster parent with whom a child has lived for one year or more.
Specific Issue Order
Specific Issue Orders can cover a broad range of disputes between parents regarding how to raise their children, including where they go to school, which religion they are raised in, whether they should get certain medical treatments, where they can go on holiday, or even if they can get their ears pierced. If parents cannot reach an agreement and have attempted mediation, they can apply for a specific issue order, and the family court will step in to resolve the matter. As with CAOs, the family court will always put the child’s welfare first.
The case of M v H (Private Law Vaccination)  provides a useful example of how parents can use specific issue orders, as well as how they are handled by the court. In this case, the father applied for a specific issue order requiring his children to be given routine childhood vaccinations, in line with the NHS vaccination schedule. While routine childhood vaccines are not mandatory in the UK, the Judge in this case granted the father’s application, stating the decision was based on ‘whether it is in the children’s best interests to receive each of the vaccines that are currently included on the NHS vaccination schedule, including the MMR vaccine.’
Prohibited Steps Order (PSO)
A PSO is a type of court order that can be used to stop a parent making decisions or taking actions involving their children that the other parent disagrees with. PSOs can be used for a number of reasons, including preventing a parent from relocating with their children, taking them abroad on holiday, or changing their school.
Anyone with Parental Responsibility for a child can apply for a PSO. As with CAOs and Specific Issue Orders, the family court’s decision will be based on the child’s welfare.
In most cases, the court will require you to try mediation before you apply for a court order. However, it will make an exception in certain circumstances, such as in cases of domestic violence.
If you need help settling a dispute regarding your children, we are here to help. Our expert family law solicitors have extensive experience applying for court orders and will work with you to achieve the best possible outcome. As trained mediators, our team can also help you resolve disputes outside of court if you would prefer to avoid applying for a court order.