The Children and Family Relationships Act 2015 was signed into law in April of this year. However, some of its provisions are yet to come into force until formal commencement orders are signed.  As the Act deals with a plethora of family law issues, this article will explore just some of the amendments the Act will introduce to our family law system once the relevant provisions are commenced, in particular, those changes to the laws governing  guardianship, custody, access and maintenance.

Guardianship

The Act will afford enchanced rights in respect of guardianship to fathers, spouses, cohabitants and civil partners.

Previous laws provided that, where the parents of a child were not married, only the natural mother was an automatic guardian of that child.  Further legal steps, such as a court order or the agreement of the mother, had to be taken by an unmarried father to have him appointed as a joint guardian of the child. However, the Act provides that a father  who has lived with the child’s mother for 12 consecutive months, including at least three months with the mother and the child, will automatically become a joint guardian of that child. This period of cohabitation can take place at any time before the child turns 18 years old.

In addition, a person who is married to or in a civil partnership with a child’s parent, or has cohabited with the child’s parent for three years and shared responsibility for the child’s care for a two-year period, is entitled to apply to become a guardian of that child.

Persons who have provided for a child’s day to day care for a period of one year, where no other parent or guardian is able or willing to do so, are also be eligible to apply for guardianship. This provision, therefore, affords an opportunity to foster parents, grandparents and other adults who provide day-to-day care for a child to apply for guardianship.

Custody and Access

The Act affords improved rights of custody and access to a wider range of family members.

In particular, grandparents and other relatives are to be afforded easier recourse to the courts to have access to a child in the context of relationship breakdown, and to apply for custody if there is no parent willing or able to take responsibility for caring for the child.

Maintenance

The Act provides that the court may make maintenance orders requiring the cohabiting partner of a child’s parent to make payments towards the maintenance of the child. A maintenance order may be made against a cohabitant who is not the parent of the child in question but has been appointed a guardian.

At the time of writing this article, all of the provisions dealing with the above amendments to our family law system are yet to be commenced. However, Part 10 of the Act, dealing with guardians’ consent to the issuing of a child’s passport, was commenced in July of this year.