What is a Child Arrangement Order?
When couples separate, there can sometimes be disputes over where the child or children will live. If separated parents cannot agree on who the child should live with or how much time they should spend with the other parent, an application can be made to the competent court for Child Arrangement Order under the Children Act 1989. Child Arrangement orders are governed by section 8 of the Children Act and can only be made regarding a child under 16 years of age unless the circumstances of the case are exceptional.
When a Court makes a Child Arrangement Order (CAO) specifying the person with whom the child is to live, that person is conferred with parental responsibility of the child. Section 3(1) of the Children Act 1989 defines parental responsibility as “the rights, duties, powers, responsibilities and authority which by law a parent of a child has in relation to the child and their property.”
Applying for a Child Arrangement Order
Before making an application, parties must attend Mediation Information and Assessment Meeting (MIAM) unless they are exempt. The meeting will assess whether mediation is suitable for the parties in the circumstances and if they can agree on arrangements out of court. If mediation is unsuccessful or parties are exempt from MIAM, an application for Child Arrangement Order can be made by filling C100 form and submitting it to the relevant Family Court. This procedure costs £215, and legal aid is available for low-income families or if the applicant or the child has suffered violence or abuse at the hands of the counterparty.
Section 10(4)(5) of the Children Act details the classes of persons who can make the application. Most important persons include “the child’s mother, father, guardian, anyone who currently has parental responsibility or any person the child has lived with for at least three years within the last five years.”
Any other person who is not entitled to apply as of right can still apply for the order but only with the prior leave of the court.
What the Court considers in making the Order?
In making the order, the court carefully evaluates the circumstances of the individual family and whether it would be better for the child to make a Child Arrangement Order at all. The Appellant Committee of the House of Lords stated in Re G (Children) (FC)  that child welfare remains the paramount consideration. Therefore, in determining a child’s best interest, particular regard is given to the criteria set out in section 1 (3) of the Children Act, often termed the welfare checklist. This checklist includes, inter alia, “the ascertainable wishes and feelings of the concerned child, his physical, emotional and educational needs, likely effect on him of any change in circumstances. Furthermore, the court looks at the ability of the parents or the concerned party to meet the child’s needs, child’s age, sex, background or any characteristics the court considers relevant.”
Additionally, the court will consider the report made by the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (CAFCASS) officer who spends time with the family and provide recommendations for moving forward.
How long the Order lasts?
Once the court makes an order, it shall be legally binding and will remain in force until the child reaches sixteen, unless the order specifically states otherwise. However, the part of the order that decides whom the child should ‘live with’ remains legally binding until the child reaches 18.
An existing Child Arrangement Order can be varied by applying to the court. However, the party applying for variation has to adduce evidence that their proposed changes are in the child’s best interest.