What happens when separated parents share parental responsibility for their children but can’t agree on a particular significant issue? Particularly when time is of the essence and a decision on something must be made? One potential way forward is for a parent to apply to the courts for sole parental responsibility with regard to a single issue. This can then confer the parent with sole parental responsibility the ability to make decisions in that regard without consulting with the other parent. Courts prefer for separated parents to reach agreement on major issues with each other without the need for a court intervening and our Family Law Act 1975 enshrines the presumption of equal shared parental responsibility. However, applying for sole parental responsibility for a single issue is a possible remedy in cases where there is an ongoing dispute over a particular major issue.
(Can you have sole parental responsibility for a single issue? Continued]
Parental responsibility covers major long-term decisions relating to the child by parents, rather than day-to-day decision-making. This includes health-related issues, schooling, religious matters and similar significant matters. So if there’s an important decision that needs to be made, and parents are at odds, how might the court intervene?
As you’ll see from a recent Family Court judgment (given pseudonyms Self & Bachman), it’s possible for courts to make orders on parental responsibility with regard to one issue only, rather than the whole spectrum of long-term decisions parents have to make. This matter concerns disagreement over a child’s mental health treatment and led to a court handing sole parental responsibility to a mother–on the matter of the child’s psychological health treatment only. On all other major issues, the parents would continue to share parental responsibility as their parenting case continued.
In this matter, the Independent Children’s Lawyer had brought an urgent listing of applications in a parenting proceeding over a 11 year old boy. The parents had previously made consent orders agreeing that the child would see a specific clinical psychologist. The father stopped taking the child to therapy and the child was now expressing suicidal thoughts.
The mother and the ICL say the therapy didn’t happen because “of an unwillingness indicated by the father to engage with the process”. The father, for his part, says he is prepared to engage, but that the clinical psychologist “formed the view that she did not want to be involved”.
The court noted that at this interim stage, it was unable to determine the truth of the facts of this “he said, she said” issue. A first instance judge, it noted, had to “weigh the probabilities of competing claims and the likely impact on children, in the event that a controversial assertion is acted upon or rejected, and to make the best decision they can on the basis of what has been put before him or her, on the basis of their intuition.”
The fact remained that the child had not been brought for mental health treatment and remained at risk. Judge Harper said:
“[T]he child has been presenting with suicidal ideation on occasions. What is as plain as a pikestaff in these proceedings is the damage that this poor child is suffering by reason of the entrenched inability of the parents to reach agreement about how to deal with his medical issues”.
Although the mother sought overall sole parental responsibility, the ICL supported the making of an order that gave her interim sole parental responsibility only on the matter of the child’s mental health or “psychological presentation”. The judge agreed with the ICL and the mother was granted sole parental responsibility for this single issue so that she can “make decisions for the child to receive the psychological therapeutic intervention he needs”.
The case continues and the court noted that this decision at interim stage was not necessarily indicative of the outcome at the final hearing. However, the court’s decision ensures that in the meantime, the child will be able to receive treatment that the father had not appeared willing to facilitate.
Do you need legal advice in relation to parenting consent orders or applications in Family Court? Please contact Canberra family lawyer Cristina Huesch or one of our other experienced solicitors here at Alliance Family Law on (020 6223 2400.
Please note our blogs are not legal advice. For information on how to obtain the correct legal advice, please contact Alliance Family Law.