Summertime blues for families booking holidays

Louise Butcher, Hall Brown Family Law

By Louise Butcher, Associate Solicitor, Hall Brown Family Law

Even though it’s now only a few weeks since the Easter holidays, thoughts have already started to turn to the summer holidays which lie ahead.

This will, of course, be the first opportunity in two years for families to take a vacation without having to navigate travel restrictions aimed at preventing the spread of Covid-19.

That is one reason why some travel companies are expecting a bumper few months, as families seize the chance to venture overseas once again.

For divorced or separated parents and their employers, though, that prospect means more than simply packing a case and remembering to bring a passport.

Whilst some individuals are able to agree the details of their children’s holidays informally, many cannot do so and must apply to court for arrangements to be clarified.

When a couple with children separate and where they are unable to agree an agreement as to how their children will be looked after, they usually apply to the court for something known as a Child Arrangements Order (CAO).

This is a document setting how how a child is to split its time between its parents. It can often include provisions allow the child to live with each parent for specified periods of time or to live with one parent and spend time with the other.

However, when parents disagree about individual aspects of a child’s well-being – including where a child should live or be educated, issues concerning medical treatment or holidays – then disputes are resolved by applying for something known as a Specific Issue Order (SIO).

In recent years, many more mothers and fathers have sadly found themselves needing to resort to an SIO.

In fact, according to data published by the Ministry of Justice, there were 7,192 such orders made last year, an increase of 92% on the corresponding figure for 2011.

It is important to remember that an SIO is not just a nicety. A parent taking a child out of the country on holiday without the consent of the other parent could see that trip regarded as child abduction.

Courts view this kind of behaviour in a dim light. It can be seen an attempt to frustrate childcare arrangements which have already been either agreed or imposed.

As a result – and under the terms of the 1984 Child Abduction Act – those found guilty of taking a child resident in England and Wales abroad without permission potentially face up to seven years in prison.

Parents who stay on the right side of the law and follow due process must be aware that it’s not swift. Evidence also shows that it’s taking longer to conclude such applications.

Overall, it took 41 weeks to resolve children’s law matters brought before the courts last year, nine weeks longer than in 2020.

That is why I maintain that booking a family holiday becomes an issue both for parents and employers.

To avoid running into trouble and possible legal sanction, mothers and fathers need to plan their holidays even earlier to take account the potential for legal processes should there not agreement between each other.

It is something which I and my colleagues become acutely aware of before each of the holiday seasons on the calendar.

Many people only begin to think about arrangements for Christmas or summer holidays when those holidays are fast approaching. If they can’t agree the finer details between themselves and have to rely on the courts to resolve any dispute, they may already have left it too late.

Likewise, if individuals haven’t already begun the discussions about what they will do this summer, they may be unable to travel at all.

Juggling workplace rosters and holiday leave is no easy feat at the best of times for workers and managers. Trying to do it well in advance of summer or Christmas and in a way which may require additional time off for court hearings and meetings with lawyers is even more difficult.

It’s perhaps understandable that the stresses involved might impact on the mental health of staff too as well as their productivity.

When we’re scanning brochures and trying to secure the best fares, resorts and hotels, we know that booking quickly can be the key.

I believe that a key part of holiday planning should be determining proposals at the earliest opportunity to obtain the consent of the other parent.

If that consent isn’t forthcoming in writing, then they really need to take legal advice – and any resulting legal steps – well before the date of any proposed trip to ensure that vacations provide a chance to rest and are not a source of stress.