Volatile Relationship between Parents Stops Father’s Contact with Son

As we explained here last month, a finding of domestic abuse against a parent does not automatically bar that parent from seeing their child.

But the abuse will most certainly have a significant bearing upon any decision by a court relating to arrangements for the child.

This was clearly demonstrated by a recent decision of the Court of Appeal.

The decision concerned an appeal by a father against an order that he should have no face-to-face contact with his three-year-old son, for an indefinite period.

The background to the case was that the parents began their relationship in 2016, when the mother was aged 18 and the father 43. The relationship turned sour with violence on both sides, and as it was ending, the mother became pregnant and the child was born in early 2021. The parents briefly cooperated, but by the time the child was two months old, the position was again volatile.

In September 2021 the mother stopped the father from having unsupervised contact, after he had reported her to social services.

The father took the matter to court, and at a fact-finding hearing the court found that the parents’ behaviour had been “very poor indeed”, and that they had lost sight of the damage that attacking each other might do to the child.

Specifically the court found, amongst other things, that the mother could resort to physical violence, and that the father had engaged in coercive and controlling behaviour that included constantly criticising and belittling the mother, and on a number of occasions using physical violence.

Meanwhile, the father was having supervised contact with the child, which was generally of good quality and was enjoyed by father and son.

Despite this, the judge decided in December 2023 that all face-to-face contact between the father and the child should cease, taking the view that the risk of harm to the child from continuing direct contact, given the volatility of the parents’ relationship, was greater than the harm he would experience by it ceasing. There would therefore be indirect contact only.

The father appealed, to the Court of Appeal.

Giving the leading judgment Lord Justice Peter Jackson looked at the approach the court should take to contact in cases where domestic abuse is a feature and found that: “the court must approach the fundamental welfare assessment that underlies every decision with full alertness both to the inherent value of the parent-child relationship and to the significance of any harm that a contact order may entail for the child or for the parent with care. Where these considerations conflict, the court must identify the best solution for the child or, where there is no good solution, the least worst one.

That was what the judge had done. Having found that there was both a real and a perceived risk of harm to the mother arising from the father’s attitude, she was entitled to consider that the current level of contact was unsustainable.

The father’s appeal was therefore dismissed.

The final words of Lord Justice Jackson’s judgment are telling and should, perhaps, be heeded by all separated parents. He said:

“I accept that it seems unfair that, where both parents are responsible for the situation they have created around their child, the relationship between the child and one parent has to suffer. That is the unfortunate consequence of extreme family situations of this kind, which sometimes demand that priority is given to the relationship between the child and the other parent in an attempt to prevent even worse outcomes.”

You can read the full report of the appeal here.

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