Following a separation, should there be shared parenting with children spending equal time with both parents?

Until quite recently, shared parenting was uncommon. Up ‘til 2006, only about four percent of parents got equal time with their children. But following 2006 Family Law amendments, when courts were required to consider equal time in most cases, the percentage of equal time arrangements shot up to 35 percent. Not everyone was happy about this:  some critics argued that where one parent was violent and domineering, this was contrary to the children’s best interests.

But then the trend towards shared parenting began reversing. By 2013 the percentage of families opting for equal time had dropped to about 16 percent. This trend continues today.

Why?  The big factor seems to be that around the same time the courts came out for shared parenting, the government also put considerable funds towards establishing Family Relationships Centres as a one stop shop to assist parents resolve parenting issues.  This meant that parents are now usually required to undergo Family Dispute Resolution, prior to going to court.

Now, the majority of parents, when they get good advice and with the help of Family Dispute Resolution, can work out their own parenting arrangements.  And the majority of parents don’t choose equal time. The courts have followed the same trend.  Yes, the time that the non-primary carer (most commonly the father) spends with their children has increased since 2006. But in most cases not to the extent of equal time.

Another factor supporting this trend is the rising popularity in Australia of child inclusive mediation, in which children have their own mediator who participates in the mediation process on the children’s behalf.  This process, taking into account the children’s wishes, motivates the parents to come to agreements, which often don’t involve shared parenting.

What seems clear is this.  A 50:50 care arrangement is the optimum arrangement and many children thrive in such a setting. But it’s not for everyone.  To work well it seems to require parents to live in close proximity to each other, be experienced carers, have adequate resources and flexible work arrangements and that the parents are able to communicate and cooperate in their children’s best interests. It often doesn’t work so well when the children are very young or are teenagers. Those who do opt for equal time, generally find that a week with one, then a week with the other, works better than ping-pong arrangements where the children come and go several times a week.

This may disappoint some parents hoping for equal time. Still, more parents are able to spend substantial time with their children than used to be the case. The important thing is that the welfare of the children comes ahead of their parents’ personal wishes. In most instances, but not always, it’s better for their children to spend the majority of nights in one home.

*Andrew Corish is an Accredited Specialist in Family Law with Corish & Co Specialist Family Lawyers North Sydney