Christmas is a very special time of year and for most people it is about spending quality time with family. However, for separated parents and children alike, the festive season can be marred by bitter disputes over contact and how a child’s time should be divided over the holiday period. What should be a happy and child focused time often becomes stressful and upsetting for all involved, including the child.

For some, child arrangements are predetermined by the Court. It is quite common for such agreements to set out exactly which days a child will spend with each parent during the Christmas holidays. There is no hard and fast rule in determining a dispute in respect of a child’s time during special occasions, but the Court would expect the holidays to be shared fairly and with the children’s best interests as the paramount consideration. It is quite typical to see Christmas Day and New Year’s Day alternating each year.

It is extremely important for both parents to acknowledge the detrimental impact contact disputes can have on the child(ren) and to remain mindful of the fact that the child’s welfare and happiness should be at the forefront of any arrangements concerning their care. While there is no set formula to finding the perfect solution in every case where the parties’ needs and traditions vary, we have listed some guidance to help you work towards resolving these issues in an amicable and constructive manner:-

1. Communication

Communication between the parties is the key to successfully managing all children arrangements. While the ideal would be for parents to discuss matters directly and face to face, we appreciate that this is often difficult, particularly when a separation is recent and emotions are high. If it is not possible to speak directly, we would suggest written communications, i.e. by email which avoid emotive language and focus on the issue in hand in a conciliatory manner. If direct communication is impossible in situations where the parties’ relationship has completely broken down or an Injunctive Order is in place preventing contact, we would suggest contacting a solicitor who can facilitate contact between parties and assist in agreeing arrangements formally.

2. Compromise

It is virtually impossible to reach any form of agreement in life without a degree of compromise on the part of one or all parties involved. Furthermore, when an agreement is reached, it is rarely going to satisfy each party’s ideal outcome. Contact arrangements are largely going to result in one parent feeling disappointed in some way or another as quite naturally, both will want to spend as much time with the child as possible. Approaching these types of issues and entering into discussions on the basis you are prepared to compromise will usually result in the most fruitful negotiations and an agreement being reached amicably and expeditiously. Knowing your rights from the outset and the level of contact a Court would endorse can be a helpful tool in negotiating arrangements and can often encourage the other party to compromise on their part.

3. Focus on the needs, wishes and feelings of the child(ren) concerned

This factor goes hand in hand with being aware of the need to compromise and is the approach taken by the Court in determining arrangements. It is important to put your own needs, wishes and feelings aside and to prioritise what is in the best interests of the child.

4. Plan ahead

Christmas is an extremely busy time and so it can only be to all parties’ benefit to have clear and defined arrangements in place at an early stage. This will also allow sufficient time to consult legal advice and assistance where necessary.

5. Stick to the agreement reached and the specific arrangements on the day

It is important to respect and abide by the arrangements that are put in place, not only to provide stability and consistency for the child, but also to demonstrate a responsibility to the other parent by recognising that their time with the child is just as important as your own. This will also help to encourage an amicable relationship and give each parent confidence in the other at being able to work together to co-parent despite separation.

What steps can be taken if Christmas contact arrangements cannot be agreed?

  • Consult a Family Law solicitor in the first instance. They will provide you with further advice and guidance on how to reach agreement directly. If all efforts have been exhausted, they can write to your ex-partner to agree arrangements on your behalf. This will result in a formal arrangement being recorded in writing.
  • If it is not possible to reach agreement through a solicitor(s), a referral can be made to an independent mediator whereupon endeavours can be made to reach agreement face to face in the presence of a third party professional.
  • Should mediation fail, you have the option to apply to the Court to agree arrangements in the Court arena or for the Court to determine arrangements on the parties’ behalf if agreement cannot be reached. If an Order is already in place which has been breached or requires amendment, application can be made to the Court to vary its terms. Court applications are always a remedy of last resort. Sufficient time should be given to allow all other avenues of resolve to be explored and if Court proceedings are unavoidable it should be borne in mind that the later the application is lodged, the less likely the Court will have availability to hear the matter before Christmas.

If you are a separated parent who is facing these difficulties and would like further advice and assistance regarding Christmas contact or child arrangements generally, please do not hesitate to get in touch with a member of our family team who will be happy to discuss matters with you.