By Jelena Korobkova, solicitor in our Family Law team

With the long and hot summer finally coming to an end, most will shortly turn their attention to the next annual landmark i.e. the festive season.

For a lot of people, the lead up to and the actual Christmas season can be a magical time of year when precious lifelong memories are created with their dearest loved ones. For others, this time of year can be peppered with feelings of anxiousness and unpredictability, which can inevitably take away from the magic. 

Those finding themselves in the midst of parental conflict following separation or considering ending a relationship, while contemplating how this may impact contact and living arrangements for their children, may find themselves in the latter group.

So what do you need to do to plan for the Christmas season, if contact with the children during that time may be a disputed topic?

Firstly, it is important to try to deal with these matters as early as possible to avoid any disappointment at the last minute.

Secondly, if there is no formal Order or Parenting Plan in place between the parents as to how contact is to be arranged during Christmas or how holidays are to be managed generally, then, as a starting point, it is important to liaise with the other parent directly (in writing may be best to avoid there being any room for misunderstanding). Set out exactly what the proposed plans are with dates and times for contact between the children and each parent. If you are planning to travel, set out the details of the destination and, if the trip is abroad, seek the other parent’s express consent to the children travelling.

If there is a formal Child Arrangements Order in place or an express Parenting Plan, consult the terms of these to see whether the contact during Christmas is already addressed, and liaise with the other parent in advance so that everyone is on the same page. If there is no provision for Christmas season, then liaising with the other parent to agree arrangements will be the first step. If only broad brush arrangements are set out then you might need to look at the finer detail to make sure things run smoothly.

Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, Boxing Day and New Year’s Eve tend to be the days that are most in dispute. Consideration can be given to sharing these days each year or alternating between the parents in years that follow.

Thirdly, if agreement cannot be reached in direct discussions with the other parent or the situation is such that direct communication with the other parent is not possible, then consider seeking assistance from a mediator, who is experienced in children matters. The process of mediation is voluntary. The session(s) would be facilitated by an independent mediator with both parents attending (in person or remotely) and the mediator will then seek to narrow down the issues that may be in dispute so that a resolution can be achieved. This can often be a more cost and time effective way to deal with a dispute than the more formal avenues addressed below, and can encourage more creative solutions that work for the individual family.

Fourthly, if the above avenues have failed or are not practical, then seeking legal advice may serve as a further option to get matters resolved. A legal expert can assist you with considering what may be a better way to approach the issue at hand as well as addressing any other options that may be open to you.

Lastly, frequently seen as a last resort, an application to court under the Children Act 1989 can be made, either to vary an existing Order or to put in place formal arrangements moving forward, if no such order is in place. This is certainly not a quick resolution as it will take the court time to list and hear any application and such a step can be costly, if solicitors are involved. However, unfortunately, there are times when an application to court although a last resort, may be the only option. Of course, this route means that a judge will make a decision and that outcome might not be what either parent really wanted.

The primary consideration throughout, whichever avenue is adopted, is to remember that what is in the best interest of the children is of utmost importance. Often, in the heat of a dispute, judgements can be clouded. However, it is vital to remember that while your relationship as a couple may have ended, the children’s relationship with each of you as their parents will continue for life and preserving that relationship, in most cases, will be better for the children involved. It’s fair to say that children are far more likely to have a happy Christmas if their parents can agree arrangements rather than arguing about them.