Child Arrangements in the UK: Overview

Although child custody is a well-known term, U.K. courts no longer use it.

The phrases lives with (in England and Wales) and residence (in Scotland and Northern Ireland) have officially replaced custody. The phrases spends time with (in England and Wales) and contact (in Scotland and Northern Ireland) have replaced visitation and access.

The obligation to care for a child and make decisions about them is called parental responsibility in the U.K.

However, all these terms are used interchangeably in casual settings. Child arrangements serves as an overarching term.

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Ways to decide parenting disputes

When parents separate, they're encouraged to agree on a parenting plan, which includes a residence and contact schedule and child maintenance arrangement.

The plan is not legally binding unless you submit it for court approval as a Consent Order or Minute of Agreement.

If you cannot agree on a parenting plan yourselves, you should try an alternative dispute resolution (ADR) method, where trained professionals assist you.

As a last resort, you can ask the courts to decide arrangements for you and make an order. The processes in England and Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland are all slightly different, so familiarise yourself with the country that applies to you.

Courts don't like to make decisions about parenting. Overall, judges refrain from altering a family's existing child arrangements unless absolutely necessary. They generally hold the view that parents know what's best, assuming you will prioritise your child's welfare.

Courts handles divorce proceedings separately from child arrangements cases, in the hope that the child-focused case won't be necessary because the parents will reach agreement.

The movement toward shared parenting

Shared parenting (also called co-parenting and a host of other terms) is increasingly popular in the U.K. It means that a child has a home with each parent, and it emphasises the parents' joint rights and responsibilities.

Shared parenting does not necessarily imply equal parenting time. As long as both parents have their child at least 40 percent of the time, they have a shared-parenting arrangement. (You can calculate your time with your child using Custody X Change.)

Healthy shared parenting requires ongoing communication, so it's not for everyone. But if you can manage to put your differences with the other parent aside, your child will benefit highly.

Courts favour shared-parenting arrangements whenever possible because they recognise that children grow and learn as a result of influence from both parents. In especially acrimonious separations, courts may require parents to attend counseling to set them up for successful shared parenting.

Factors in family court decisions

Whilst child laws throughout the U.K. have different nuances, they all seek to protect the best interests of the child.

This means that courts take all factors into account to arrive at the best decision for the child — not what's ideal for the parents or what's easiest or cheapest to implement.

In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, the courts use a list of considerations called the Welfare Checklist to guide them in making these decisions.

The Welfare Checklist includes:

  • The child's wishes and feelings (Professionals help kids as young as 3 voice opinions.)
  • The child's physical and emotional needs
  • The likely effect of the intended change on the child
  • The child's age, sex and background
  • Any harm the child has suffered or is at risk of suffering
  • Each parent's capacity to meet the child's needs

Whilst this list is not explicit in Scots law, its principles still underpin decisions in Scottish courts.

If you make your own parenting plan and schedule, think about this checklist and what would meet your child's best interests.

Keep in mind that when you go to court over child arrangements, you do not have to convince 'beyond reasonable doubt' like in a criminal case. Instead, you need only to convince the judge that your position is probably right.

Representing yourself in UK courts

Family law proceedings are complex, so you should seek some level of professional help if you go to court — even if you plan to represent yourself. You might consult with a solicitor just at the early stages of your case to give you a head start. If you cannot afford a solicitor, check if you qualify for legal aid.

If you represent yourself, you are called a litigant in person in England, Wales and Northern Ireland and a party litigant in Scotland.

You must be ruthlessly organised with your information and have a working knowledge of court procedure and terminology.

With that said, you do not have to know all the rules of the court. Judges will look favourably upon you if you help them by being focused and prepared.

Lay representatives and courtroom supporters (McKenzie friends)

You can ask the court for permission to have someone with you during proceedings.

The court may allow you to bring:

  • A lay representative, who can speak on your behalf
  • A courtroom supporter (McKenzie friend), who can give you moral support

As neither of these people are legal professionals, they cannot give legal advice.

Courtroom etiquette

Remember that court is a formal setting. Certain rules and etiquette apply:

  • If you have a lay representative or courtroom supporter, introduce them at the start.
  • Stand up when addressing the judge.
  • Stay seated when you're not speaking.
  • Remain calm and polite.
  • Do not tut, roll your eyes or display other signs of annoyance.
  • Be prepared for the judge to interrupt you and ask clarifying questions.

If a judge asks whether you understand, use the opportunity to clear up anything you're confused about. It will be hard to argue later that you didn't understand when you had the chance to ask questions.

You should follow these guidelines even in round table hearings and other less formal settings. Whilst family courts are making proceedings more approachable, your judge will still appreciate the respect.

LGBTQ parents

The law surrounding separating LGBTQ parents is now largely the same as the law for heterosexual couples.

Once you establish parental responsibility, you are free to agree on a parenting plan. If negotiations fail, you can apply to the court the same way as heterosexual couples.

As always, the court will prioritise the best interests of the child. It will look at whom the child has spent the majority of their time with and whom they have a strong relationship with. This is particularly important for LGBTQ couples who raise a child together but don't legalise their relationships.

Government benefits for your child after separation

When you separate from your partner, you may become entitled to new or increased benefits.

You may want to check whether you are now eligible to claim universal credit, particularly if you are on a low income or looking for work. Universal credit can provide financial support for a variety of essentials, including child care and other child costs.

If you're bringing up a child under the age of 16 or a child under 20 in full-time education, you're entitled to claim child benefit — but only one person can claim for each child in a year. (Note that if you earn £50,000 to £60,000 a year, you'll pay a portion back via income tax. If you earn £60,000 or over, you'll pay it all back.)

If you're in a shared-parenting arrangement, you're encouraged to come to an agreement about who claims the child benefit. This allows flexibility. You could, for example, agree to claim different children or alternate who claims each year. Put this information in your parenting plan.

If you are not able to agree, you can apply separately, and HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) will make the decision for you. If one of you has already been granted the benefit, the other parent may still apply so that HMRC can reassess.

When assessing claims, HMRC considers a range of factors, such as:

  • How many nights the child spends in each home in a year
  • Who covers the child's day-to-day living costs, including meals and pocket money
  • Which address the child registered with for school, doctors, etc.

Usually, the parent who has the child for more nights receives the benefit. Use Custody X Change to calculate your overnights automatically.

Where to find the actual legislation

Each country in the U.K. has its own version of laws regarding children.

England and Wales use the Children Act 2004.

Scotland uses the Children (Scotland) Act 2020.

In Northern Ireland, the law is still based in the Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995.

Our professional resources

For more help, consider reaching out to one of our sources. The professionals below provided expertise for this guide on child arrangements in the U.K. We hope they can help you, too.

Ciaran Moynagh — Partner, Head of Equality and Family Law
Phoenix Law
Belfast, Northern Ireland

Fred McBride — Consultant
AMB Collaborative
Edinburgh, Scotland

Jack Bicketon — Project Manager
Direct Mediation Services
Skipton, England

John Roberts — Partner, Director
Austin Lafferty LTD
Glasgow, Scotland

Liam Mackel — Advice Manager
Children's Law Centre
Belfast, Northern Ireland

Luke Dixon — Head of Family Department, Associate Solicitor and Collaborative Lawyer
Martyn Prowel Solicitors LTD
Cardiff, Wales

Mark Heptinstall — Head of Family
Slater Heelis
Manchester, England

Michelle Soloman — Board Chair, Family Mediator and Solicitor
Family Mediation Services LTD
London, England

Peter Lynn — Senior Partner
Peter Lynn and Partners Solicitors
Swansea, Wales

Richard Wyatt — Director of Campaigns, Communications and PR
National Family Mediation
Exeter, England

Shared Parenting Scotland
Edinburgh, Scotland

Staying organised

The process of deciding how your child is looked after requires serious organisation. You may need to propose multiple residence and contact schedules, keep detailed notes about time spent with your child, calculate expenses and beyond.

With parenting calendars, a parenting journal, an expense tracker and more, Custody X Change makes sure you're prepared for whatever arises on your journey.

Take advantage of our technology to stay on top of all the moving parts of your new parenting arrangement.

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