A separating couple with children will need to work out the parenting arrangements for those children – where the children are to live and who may make decisions about the children.
If the couple can agree, their agreement can be formalised as Consent Orders (ie Orders made by the Court by consent). If not, the Court can decide the parenting arrangements for them.
In either case, the Court will only make orders that it considers are in the children’s best interests.
Structure of parenting orders
Parenting orders, whether made by consent or otherwise, will cover topics such as with whom the children are to live and spend time, and which parent may make decisions in relation to the children’s day to day and long term care, welfare and development. Theoretically, each aspect of a parenting order, whether made by consent or after a contested hearing, is as binding and enforceable as a Court order about the parties’ finances.
Unfortunately, that theory is not always borne out in practice.
It can sometimes be difficult to prove a breach of parenting orders. How does one demonstrate to the Court that one’s former partner breached the order requiring him to communicate with you in relation to decisions regarding the children’s long term welfare?
Even if your former partner is completely unwilling to compromise, the fact that she attempted to “discuss” the issue with you may satisfy the Court that your right to consultation was respected.
Surely it would be easier to prove a breach of a parenting order relating to time with the children? It is likely to be obvious whether the children spent the ordered time with you.
However, before the Court will treat a parenting order as having been breached, it must first consider whether the “guilty” parent had a “reasonable excuse” for failing to comply with the orders. For example, was it reasonable for the “guilty” parent not to facilitate the other parent’s time with the children on the basis that the children allegedly don’t want to go and “I can’t make them”.
Whether or not that constitutes a reasonable excuse depends on the facts of each case, including the age of the children and the steps that the parent did take to try to encourage the children to spend time with the other parent.
Consequences of breach
If a Court is satisfied that a parenting order has been breached, it has a range of penalties available to it to either punish the “guilty” parent, to “compensate” the innocent parent or to enforce the parenting orders. Those options include:
• requiring one or both parents to attend a parenting after separation course;
• ordering that the children spend additional “make up time” with the innocent parent;
• changing the parenting orders. This could mean that the children ultimately regularly spend more time or even live with the “innocent” parent; and
• placing the “guilty” parent on a bond or sentencing him or her to imprisonment.
In relation to the last three of those options, the Court’s overriding consideration is still the children’s best interests. There have been a number of cases where, despite proven and repeated breaches of parenting orders by the parent with whom the children live, the Court has not drastically changed the earlier parenting orders, nor was the “guilty” parent put in gaol because the Court was concerned that the imposition of such consequences would not be in the children’s best interests.
Unfortunately, the practical outcome in those cases was that the “guilty” parent’s breach of the parenting orders went unpunished.
In such cases, the Judge must reconcile her desire to uphold the Court’s orders and punish any breach of them with the Court’s overriding obligation to only make parenting orders that it considers to be in the children’s best interests.
Consequences for taking children overseas
One type of breach of parenting orders which deserves special mention is where a parent breaches and tries to avoid the operation of Australian parenting orders by taking the children overseas. Such a situation is treated very seriously by the Family Court, the Federal Police and relevant international authorities.
Parenting orders can be made by consent or as a result of a contested hearing before a Judge. The enforceability and consequences for breach of parenting orders is the same, regardless of how those orders were made. Unfortunately, proving a breach of parenting orders and obtaining what the “innocent” parent might consider to be adequate redress can sometimes be difficult.
Given that all parenting orders, whether consent orders or otherwise, are made taking into account the children’s best interests, both parents would be better advised to comply with the orders, rather than litigate about an alleged breach of them, as such compliance ought to promote the children’s relationship with both parents and the children’s best interests.
If you or someone you know wants more information or needs help or advice, please contact us on 02 6201 7243 or email [email protected].