The Language of Family Law

Published: 5 April 2016

Author: Claire Rutter

Category: Blog

The English language evolves every day - from slang vocabulary of teenagers - to the terms connected with technology and social media. Each year sees the addition of around 1000 new words to the Oxford English dictionary. Likewise, the language surrounding family law has changed greatly over the last 150 years.

In Victorian England men and fathers were seen to be much more important than women and this reflected in their legal rights when it came to childcare. A mother was powerless against her husband on decisions around contact with her child. Thankfully, as our view of women and children in society altered so did the legislation. The early 20th century then saw a step away from the rights of the parent to consider what was best for the children in question.

Many recent efforts have been made to create a neutral language in family law. From the removal of terms such as access and custody in 1989 - to the introduction of Parenting Agreements in 2014 - the aim has always been to encourage cooperation when making decisions on the welfare of the child. Understandably, mainstream vocabulary often takes a long time to catch up, leaving parents confused about the exact meaning of some of the terminology.At Burn & Co Solicitors we support all of our clients on their journey through the legal process. Here is our short guide to the common terms and phrases you may hear during your contact with the family law system.

- Residence and contact. We no longer refer to a parent as having ‘access’ or ‘custody’, rather your child may reside with you or have agreed contact with your child. Meaningful contact can take place in both direct and indirect ways, depending on the circumstances in question.

- Shared parenting. Recognition of the importance of both parents in the child’s upbringing, this does not necessarily mean that their time will be divided 50/50 between both parents. Due to the confusion which this term caused amongst parents, it is often avoided and parental involvement is used in its place.

- Direct contact. Is the face to face contact between a parent and a child and this can either be arranged formally or informally. If direct contact is not possible, it may be that a parent has to communicate with their child by alternative means this may include communication via skype, telephone or letters. This is often referred to as indirect contact.

- Child Arrangement Order. This has replaced the use of a contact and residence order. The focus is not on who has ‘won’ custody of your child or who gets to ‘keep the child’ but to concentrate on the practical arrangements of child rearing.

- Parental responsibility. As a parent you have a responsibility to be involved in the care of your child, rather than a right to contact. Court decisions are always made based on the rights of your child - what may be in their best interest. Courts are always aware of a person’s right to a private and family life which is given under the Human Rights Act, although their paramount consideration has to remain what is in the best interests of the child.

- Mediation. The Children and Families Act 2014 saw the introduction of compulsory mediation into family law. This must now be used as part of the process before attempting court proceedings and can be seen as an opportunity to resolve disputes.

Parenting Plan. A valuable way to make sure that there is an agreed plan when it comes to caring for your child. Cafcass have produced some guidance in relation to how a Parenting Plan can be agreed between parents and what parents may wish to consider. More information can be found at the following website: