What is a child arrangement order in the UK?

25 September 2023
In cases of separation or divorce, ensuring the well-being and stability of children is a primary concern. Child Arrangement Orders (CAOs) play a pivotal role in the UK legal system, providing a framework for parents or guardians to make suitable arrangements for the care and upbringing of their children. In this comprehensive guide, we will delve into the intricacies of Child Arrangement Orders, explaining what they are, how they work, and the factors that influence their outcomes.
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In cases of separation or divorce, ensuring the well-being and stability of children is a primary concern. Child Arrangement Orders (CAOs) play a pivotal role in the UK legal system, providing a framework for parents or guardians to make suitable arrangements for the care and upbringing of their children. In this comprehensive guide, we will delve into the intricacies of Child Arrangement Orders, explaining what they are, how they work, and the factors that influence their outcomes.

What is a Child Arrangement Order?

A Child Arrangement Order is a legal document issued by the family court in the United Kingdom to specify who a child will live with and the contact arrangements for the non-resident parent. These orders aim to ensure that the best interests of the child are met while promoting stability and continuity in their lives, even in situations of parental separation or divorce.

Types of Child Arrangement Orders

Live With Order (formerly Residence Order)

This order determines with whom the child will primarily reside. It outlines the day-to-day care responsibilities and decisions regarding the child's upbringing.

Spend Time With Order (formerly Contact Order)

 This order governs the non-resident parent's access to the child. It outlines the frequency, duration, and nature of visits, as well as any conditions that should be adhered to during these interactions.

Spend Time With and Live With Order (formerly Shared Residence Order)

This order designates that the child will spend a significant amount of time with both parents. It aims to ensure that the child maintains strong relationships with both parents.

Key Considerations in Child Arrangement Cases

Child's Best Interests

The paramount consideration in any Child Arrangement Order case is the child's welfare. The court assesses factors such as the child's emotional, physical, and educational needs when determining the most suitable living arrangement.

Parental Involvement

Courts encourage both parents to be actively involved in their child's life, even after separation. The court may consider factors such as each parent's willingness and capacity to provide a stable environment for the child.

Child's Wishes and Feelings

Depending on the child's age and maturity, their wishes and feelings may be taken into account. However, the court's decision is not solely based on the child's preferences, as other factors carry equal weight.

Safety and Welfare

The safety and well-being of the child are of utmost importance. Any history of abuse, neglect, or domestic violence may significantly impact the court's decision-making process.

Parental Cooperation

Courts favour arrangements where parents are willing to cooperate and facilitate the child's relationship with the other parent. A willingness to communicate and work together for the child's benefit is highly regarded.

Practicality and Stability

The court considers the practicality of the proposed arrangement and the stability it offers the child. Factors such as proximity to schools, healthcare facilities, and support networks are taken into account.

Navigating the Process


Before resorting to court proceedings, parents are encouraged to attend mediation to reach an amicable agreement. Mediators are neutral parties who help facilitate discussions and negotiations between parents.

Applying to Court

If mediation is unsuccessful, one or both parents can apply to the family court for a Child Arrangement Order. The court will review the application and consider the circumstances before making a decision.  The court can direct CAFCASS or Social Services to provide extensive reports to assist them in their decision.

Court Hearings

There can be a number of court hearings ranging from Directions Appointments to a Final contested hearing.  Court hearings involve presenting evidence and arguments to a judge. Both parents have the opportunity to provide their perspectives and present their cases. If the parents are unable to reach an agreement during the proceedings then at a Final Hearing the judge will make a decision based on the best interests of the child.

Enforcement and Variation

Once a Child Arrangement Order is in place, it is legally binding. If a parent fails to comply with the order to make a child available for contact or to return a child following contact then, the other parent can seek enforcement. Additionally, if circumstances change, either parent can apply for a variation to the order.

Child Arrangement Orders in the UK serve as a crucial mechanism for safeguarding the well-being and stability of children in cases of separation and divorce. These orders prioritise the best interests of the child while recognising the importance of maintaining relationships with both parents. Understanding the key considerations, the legal process and the factors that influence outcomes is essential for parents navigating the complexities of Child Arrangement Orders. Through cooperation, communication, and a focus on the child's welfare, parents can work towards providing a nurturing and supportive environment for their children, even in the face of significant life changes.

Understanding the Role of Children’s Guardians in Child Arrangement Order Cases

In the realm of Child Arrangement Order (CAO) cases in the UK, the welfare and interests of the child hold paramount importance. To ensure that these interests are adequately represented and protected, the court may in very extreme circumstances appoint a Children’s Guardian In this section, we'll explore the role and significance of Children’s Guardians in CAO cases, shedding light on how they contribute to the decision-making process.

Role and Responsibilities of a Children’s Guardian

A Child’s Guardian is an impartial and independent professional who is appointed by the court to represent the best interests of the child during legal proceedings. The primary responsibility of the Guardian is to offer a comprehensive view of the child's situation, considering various aspects such as their emotional, physical, and educational needs. A Children’s Guardian is not to be confused with a CAFCASS officer directed to undertake a welfare report by the court.  Here's a closer look at their role:

Investigation and Assessment

The Guardian conducts a thorough investigation to understand the child's circumstances, family dynamics, and living conditions. This involves speaking to the child, parents, caregivers, and other relevant parties. By gathering firsthand information, the  Guardian can provide the court with a holistic perspective on the child's welfare.


Acting as the child's advocate, the  Guardian ensures that their voice is heard and their rights are upheld throughout the legal process. The Guardian takes into account the child's wishes and feelings, age, and level of maturity while advocating for decisions that align with the child's best interests.

Expert Opinions

Guardians often collaborate with professionals from various fields, such as social workers, psychologists, and educators, to gather expert opinions and assessments. This multidisciplinary approach adds depth to the court's understanding of the child's needs.

Case Presentation

During court hearings, the Guardian (through their solicitor) presents their findings, recommendations, and assessments to the judge. They provide an unbiased perspective, helping the court make informed decisions based on reliable information.

Benefits of Guardian ad Litem Involvement

1. Child-Centric Approach

Children’s Guardians place the child at the centre of their efforts. Their impartial stance ensures that the child's well-being takes precedence over any other considerations, fostering a sense of security and protection for the child.

2. Informed Decision-Making

The Guardian’s comprehensive investigation and collaboration with experts contribute to a more informed decision-making process. This, in turn, enhances the likelihood of outcomes that align with the child's best interests.

3. Neutrality and Objectivity

Guardians offer an objective viewpoint, as they are not emotionally involved in the case. This impartiality helps prevent bias and ensures that the child's needs remain the central focus.

4. Effective Communication

Guardians facilitate communication between various parties involved in the case, promoting open dialogue and cooperation. Their presence can mitigate conflicts and encourage collaborative solutions.

5. Expertise and Experience

Guardians will have experience in family law, child welfare, and related fields. This expertise equips them to navigate complex family dynamics and offer well-informed insights.

Challenges and Considerations

While the involvement of a Children’s Guardian  in  some CAO cases is beneficial, it's important to acknowledge some challenges:

1. Resource Constraints

The availability of a Guardian can vary based on resources and caseloads. In some cases, there might be limitations on the number of cases they can handle, potentially affecting their effectiveness.

2. Balancing Perspectives

Guardians strive to balance the child's perspective with other relevant factors. Achieving this equilibrium can be challenging, especially when there are conflicting interests among family members.

3. Adversarial Nature

Legal proceedings can be adversarial, with each parent advocating for their preferred arrangement. Guardians must navigate these tensions while staying focused on the child's well-being.

Exploring Alternative Dispute Resolution Methods in Child Arrangement Order Cases

Child Arrangement Order (CAO) cases can be emotionally charged and complex, often involving high levels of stress for all parties involved, especially the children. To address these challenges and promote more harmonious resolutions, alternative dispute resolution (ADR) methods have gained prominence. In this section, we'll delve into the various ADR methods available in CAO cases and their potential benefits.

1. Mediation: Finding Common Ground

Mediation is one of the most widely used ADR methods in family law cases, including CAO disputes. In mediation, a neutral third party, known as a mediator, facilitates discussions between the parents. The goal is to help parents reach mutually agreeable solutions regarding child arrangements. Here's how mediation works:

- Neutral Facilitation

The mediator guides the conversation and ensures that each party's perspective is heard. They help identify common ground and encourage productive communication.

- Child-Focused Approach

Mediation centres on the best interests of the child. Parents are encouraged to prioritise their child's well-being and develop arrangements that suit their needs.

- Tailored Solutions

Unlike court-imposed decisions, mediation allows parents to customise their arrangements to fit their unique circumstances. This flexibility can lead to more sustainable outcomes.

2. Collaborative Law: Working Together

Collaborative law is another ADR method that involves a cooperative approach to resolving disputes. Each parent is represented by their collaborative lawyer, and all parties commit to finding solutions without going to court. Here's how collaborative law functions:

- Team Approach

In addition to the parents and their lawyers, collaborative law may involve professionals such as financial experts, child specialists, and therapists. This multidisciplinary approach ensures that all aspects of the child's well-being are considered.

- Negotiation and Agreement

Through facilitated negotiations, parents work together to reach agreements that address their child's needs. The emphasis is on open communication and finding common ground.

- No Court Threat

A unique aspect of collaborative law is the "no court threat" agreement. If the collaborative process breaks down and the court becomes necessary, both parents must retain new lawyers, which encourages commitment to the collaborative process.

3. Family Dispute Resolution (FDR) Hearings: A Court-Supported ADR

FDR hearings are court-supported ADR sessions that provide an opportunity for parents to resolve their disputes outside of a formal court setting. Here's how FDR hearings function:

- Expert Guidance

A trained FDR judge facilitates the process, guiding discussions and offering insights into potential court outcomes. This approach aims to promote more informed decision-making.

- Evaluative Approach

Unlike traditional mediation, FDR hearings involve a more evaluative approach. The FDR judge may provide recommendations based on their assessment of the case.

- Encouraging Settlement

FDR hearings encourage parents to reach agreements on their own terms. However, if an agreement is not reached, the case may proceed to a traditional court hearing.

Benefits of ADR in CAO Cases

1. Reduced Conflict

ADR methods emphasise cooperation and communication, leading to reduced conflict and emotional stress for all parties involved, especially the children.

2. Child-Centric Solutions

ADR methods prioritise the best interests of the child, resulting in arrangements that are tailored to their specific needs and preferences.

3. Cost and Time Savings

ADR methods are often faster and more cost-effective than traditional court proceedings, as they minimise the need for lengthy litigation.

4. Preservation of Relationships 

ADR methods help parents maintain a working relationship, which is particularly important for co-parenting effectively.

In the realm of Child Arrangement Order cases, the emotional well-being and stability of the child are of paramount importance. Alternative dispute resolution methods provide a pathway to resolving disputes while minimising conflict and prioritising the best interests of the child. Whether through mediation, collaborative law, or FDR hearings, these methods offer parents the opportunity to create tailored solutions that promote harmony, cooperation, and the child's overall welfare. As the legal landscape continues to evolve, integrating ADR methods into CAO cases showcases the commitment to finding constructive and compassionate approaches to family law disputes.