You do not have to go to court to sort out arrangements for your child if you are separating or if your family situation is changing. Across the UK, the courts' preference is for parents to agree child arrangements between themselves, outside of court.
As parents with responsibility for the wellbeing of your child, you can make arrangements without needing to ask the court to decide.
This can often be less acrimonious and less costly than going to court - see the Help Advice for Separating Parents video.
Reasons for considering going to court
It is worth considering the alternatives to court unless there is a good reason to go, for example:
- If you or social services have real worries about your child’s safety or welfare with the other parent.
- If one of you feels unsafe or intimidated.
- If one of you has been preventing your child from seeing their other parent. Courts have the powers to order the parent with care to ensure the child has access to the other parent.
- Maybe you have not been able to get a suitable response from the other parent. Sometimes a court application can help to get a discussion going. The court process can be stopped if an agreement is reached out of court.
- The parent with care of the child has moved and cannot be located or is about to move away. The court can assist in finding and then contacting the other parent if they are within Northern Ireland. If you are concerned that they may be moving outside of the country you should seek urgent legal advice.
- The parent with care of the child has passed away and you want to look after the child.
When you are deciding how to manage family arrangements after separation, you may choose to use the services of an independent professional family mediator. They can help you and the other parent of your child focus on the future needs of your child and agree a Parenting Plan.
In Northern Ireland, family mediation is not mandatory and is accessed voluntarily by both parents.
Family mediation is where you meet voluntarily with the other parent and the mediator in person, if possible, or via an online platform. The mediator is trained to help you both focus on the issues that you bring to the meeting. Rather than making recommendations or imposing a decision, the mediator will encourage you to reach a voluntary solution by exploring possible solutions that benefit all.
The mediator is required to be impartial, that is, not to take sides or tell you what to do. They are there to help your discussions. Unless the mediator is a trained solicitor, they cannot give legal advice.
Mediation is not:
- a substitute for legal advice
- a way of receiving counselling.
How family mediation works
Mediation is offered in a neutral, calm setting where you are encouraged to listen to each other, to generate options, to negotiate, to compromise and to reach an agreement on what is the best outcome for your child.
It may help you communicate better so that you can continue to discuss parenting issues long into the future. It can also help to make sure that your child's voice is properly considered. Arrangements can be made for the child to meet a specialist mediator who can listen to their wishes and help the parents take those wishes into account.
A mediated agreement reached between both parents (and with children involved, where appropriate) is designed to:
- Improve parent knowledge and skills for effective co-parenting.
- Enhance parental wellbeing and reduce stress.
- Empower parents to be the decision-makers.
- Reduce the potential of parental alienation due to separation.
- Improve child wellbeing, reduce stress and anxiety related to parental separation.
- Improve the likelihood of engaged co-parenting on a continued basis.
- Reduce potential Adverse Childhood Experiences.
- Avoid the adversarial family court system.
If you have experienced any kind of domestic abuse during or after the relationship, you may be able to get free legal help from a solicitor. This is so you do not have to talk directly to the child’s other parent.
How to access family meditation
You may have to pay for family mediation, but if you have not begun court proceedings you can get up to 4 free 90 minute sessions with Family Mediation NI.
- Mediation Northern Ireland
- Parenting NI
- The Law Society of Northern Ireland
- The Resolution Centre, Barrister Mediation Arbitration Service
- NI Direct Children's Rights
- College of Mediators UK
- The Mediators' Institute of Ireland
Advice Now’s A survival guide to using Family Mediation after a break up provides useful information but please note that it is published for people in England Wales where the rules or duties are different to Northern Ireland. For example, people have to show they have tried mediation before going to court in England and Wales, but not in Northern Ireland.