Parenting plans – what are they and when should they be made?

2nd March 2023

In our legal system here in England, a practice direction is an additional regulation which supplements and supports the rules of civil and criminal procedure in the courts. Practice Direction 12B of the Family Procedure Rules 2010, also known as the Child Arrangements Programme (CAP), is designed to help families reach child-focused agreements in relation to their child or children, where possible, outside of court. Where a court application is made, the CAP encourages a timely conclusion to court proceedings.

Paragraph 2.4 of the CAP refers to a Parenting Plan. The CAP defines a Parenting Plan in the following terms:

“A Parenting Plan is widely recognised as being a useful tool for separated parents to identify, agree and set out in writing arrangements for their children; such a plan could appropriately be used as the basis for discussion about a dispute which has arisen. It is likely to be useful in any event for assisting arrangements between separated parents.”

It goes on to say, “The Parenting Plan should cover all practical aspects of care for the child, and should reflect a shared commitment to the child and his/her future, with particular emphasis on parental communication (learning how to deal with differences), living arrangements, money, religion, education, health care and emotional well-being.”

The Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (CAFCASS) represents children in Family Court cases in England. CAFCASS independently advises the Family Courts about what is safe for children and what is in their best interests.

CAFCASS strongly encourage parents to utilise a Parenting Plan and describe it as “a written plan worked out between parents after they separate, and it covers the practical issues of parenting”. The plan can help clarify the arrangements you need to put in place to care for your children after separation, without having to go to court. CAFCASS also say that a Parenting Plan can help you in dealings with your children’s other parent or carer, and it asks parents to put the best interests of their children first.

CAFCASS provide an outline Parenting Plan on their website together with guidance for completion of a plan. The guidance explains that you can start work on it by yourself and involve your child’s other parent when you can. It adds, “The Plan is intended to help any parent, whatever your situation…”.

Resolution, an organisation of Family Law professionals who work to resolve issues with a constructive and non-confrontational approach, define Parenting Plans as “a statement that should set out the parents’ commitment to and their hopes for how they will parent together even though they will live apart … a voluntary statement of parental aspirations, plans and arrangements”.

Parenting Plans are not legal documents and they do not carry ‘evidential weight’ in court proceedings. The reason being that ultimately, a Parenting Plan may not necessarily reflect what is in the child’s best interests, even if the parties are agreed on the terms as set out in it.

So, when should parents or carers draw up a Parenting Plan?

Well, the definition in the CAP above specifically refers to a Parenting Plan as a “useful tool for separated parents”. CAFCASS describe a Parenting Plan as, “a written plan worked out between parents after they separate” and Resolution specify that a plan sets out parents’ “hopes for how they will parent together even though they will live apart”. The general conclusion drawn from such definitions is that a Parenting Plan is made after parents separate.

The issue I have with this is that, naturally, following the breakdown of a relationship, the parties may well have some negative feelings towards each other. They may have lost some, if not all, respect for one another and sadly, often this includes less regard and appreciation of the other as a parent. Is that really the best time to be trying to agree such terms for the benefit of the children?

Court proceedings are, and should be, a last resort, particularly with regard to children matters. Therefore, the concept of a Parenting Plan to assist separated parents in reaching an agreement can only be a good thing. However, completing a Parenting Plan in advance of this time, when the parents are either in a relationship or a close friendship – and are therefore respectful of each other and the role they each play in their children’s lives – has to be even better!

There are no rules as to what a Parenting Plan can or should contain. Speaking from my own experience as a parent, the parenting my children receive from their father and me is – and I assume will always be – extremely important to me. Naturally, I want the very best for my children and I have strong views and values as to the way they are parented and nurtured.

A Parenting Plan can address such principles so that each of the parent’s feelings about the upbringing of their child or children are agreed and implemented at that early stage when all is well between them. Arguably, this would set the path for those values being mutually respected by both parties post-separation and therefore naturally implemented by them.

Compare a Parenting Plan to a prenuptial agreement, a cohabitation agreement or even a will – all documents that are prepared in advance of a relevant event that are designed to protect assets. With 2.3m separated families in Great Britain according to statistics from the financial year ending 2021 from the website, it begs the question, why is it not the norm to protect our most valuable assets, our children, in the same way?