When parents split up - a guide to the legal terms

Broken key

Photo: Andreas Wieser

More than 120,000 families with dependent children separated in 2014. Roughly half of those couples who split were married and the other half were previously cohabiting. Around one third of all children aged 16 and under were not living with both of their birth parents.*

 Coram Children’s Legal Centre gives the following definitions of legal terms you may come across in the course of separation or divorce:

  • Contact: The time a non-resident parent spends with their child(ren).
  • Resident parent: The parent the child(ren) lives with permanently.
  • Non-resident parent: The parent the child(ren) doesn’t live with permanently.
  • Place of residence: Where the child(ren) lives the majority of their time.
  • Parental responsibility: The legal duties and responsibilities towards children.

So what is contact?

When a relationship breaks down, parents need to reach an agreement about the arrangements for the children. They need to decide who will be the resident parent and how often the non-resident parent will see the child. The time the non-resident parent sees the child is known as contact.

Types of contact:

Contact can be: 

  • Direct (face to face)
  • Indirect (telephone conversations, emails and letters)
  • Supervised (where another person is always present)
  • Staying (where the child stays overnight)

Am I entitled to contact with my child?

The law encourages parents to maintain contact with their child and contact is only restricted where this is necessary to protect the child’s welfare. The right to contact is the right of the child, not the parent, and the legal assumption is that the involvement of both parents is good for the child. Sometimes, though, there is proof that this is not the case. Usually, parents are able to agree on contact arrangements. If not, they may seek help from family mediation, or, as a last resort, seek a court order.

Who is entitled to contact?

It’s not just parents who can ask for contact. Grandparents, aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters and anyone else who has had a close relationship with a child may ask a parent for contact.

If the contact is refused, these people may apply to the Courts for a Child Arrangements Order - but they need leave (permission) from the courts first. If this is granted, the court will make its decision based on the welfare of the child.

How much contact should there be?

Parents are expected to agree on what is ‘reasonable’ contact. Some parents have contact every day, some have contact once a year. Some parents have weekends or have the child on alternate weekends and holidays so that both have some extended time with the child. Some parents decide that a 50-50 split is the most appropriate form of contact. If the contact has had to be established through a court order, this will generally state the times that contact should take place and must be followed. 

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