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What happens if a family court order is ignored in the UK?

breach of court order

What happens if I don’t follow a court order or agreement?

Failure to obey a Court Order is contempt of court. Contempt of Court is punishable by fine or imprisonment. More often than not, in the context of Family proceedings, parties purge their contempt by complying with the Court Order or they apply to vary the court order.

This typically occurs in cases where:-

  1. There is a Court Order that a parent, for example a mother, make the parties’ child available for contact with the father, but she fails to comply with the Order and does not facilitate the contact or visitation.
  2.  There is a Court Order requiring one ex-spouse (“H”) pays the other ex-spouse (“W”) spousal maintenance of £X per calendar month and H ceases making the monthly payments.

What happens when a parent breaks a court order?

You will be in Contempt of Court if you breach a Court Order.

In scenario A, it is, in most cases, strongly advisable for the mother to make an urgent application to vary the Child Arrangements Order/ Contact Order before she ceases facilitating the child spending time with or having contact with the father in accordance with the Court Order. This will, usually, only be required if the father will not agree to vary the Order by consent and confirm his agreement to an alternative arrangement in writing; most Child Arrangements Orders will order “such other contact as is agreed between the parties in writing”, thus providing the father will agree to different arrangements in writing, the mother will not need to restore the case to Court.

This is not always possible. Sometimes it is possible for the mother to make an application to vary the existing Court Order, but that application to vary the Order will not be listed for a hearing before such a time as the child is due to go to spend time with the Father, even when the application is made on an urgent basis. This leaves the mother in a difficult position.  She will be in Contempt of Court if she does not facilitate the contact provided for in the Order. However, having filed a variation application at Court will usually help to protect her position somewhat. Furthermore, the Court would not wish for the mother to put the child at risk by complying with an Order of the Court – thus if there is a risk of harm, although she will technically be in breach of the Court’s Order and thus in Contempt, in most cases the Court would not criticise the mother for her actions providing that she has very good reasons, which are child focused and providing she uses her best endeavours to ensure her variation application is listed urgently.

It is advisable to seek legal advice from a family law or parental disputes solicitor if you find yourself in such circumstances and before breaching the Court Order if at all possible, as every situation is different.

Can you get a court order changed?

Yes; this is possible by making an application to vary a Court Order.

It is possible to vary a Child Arrangements Order/ Contact Order. It is also possible, in most cases, to vary a Financial Order for spousal maintenance.

How do court orders work?

The parties named on a Court Order, who the court has made orders against (requiring them to do something), must comply with the Order.

The Court will, however, not know if the parties are not complying with final Family Court Orders of the nature detailed above in scenarios A or B – compliance of such Court Orders is therefore not, ordinarily, “policed” by the Court or Judge. If either party to a Court Order is in breach, it is open to the other party to make an application for enforcement.

How do you enforce a court order?

A formal application to the Family Court is required to commence enforcement proceedings. In Children Act matters this requires Form C79.

In scenario B, W who is applying to enforce a Court Order for spousal maintenance will have various options. The Court has a wide range of powers, for example, the Judge can make an attachment to earnings Order, charging Order, third-party debt Order (for example requiring a bank to make a payment from H’s account to the W’s bank account) or other Order to assist the W with enforcement and ensuring payment is made. W can apply for a specific remedy, or can apply to enforce the Order generally using Form D50K and the Court will then make an Order to enforce as they consider appropriate. It is possible, in this scenario, for H to cross-apply to vary the spousal maintenance Order downwards or to apply for the Order to cease due to a change in circumstances of either party. It is only possible for W to enforce maintenance arrears that are less than 12 months old without leave of the Court.

If you are an individual paying spousal maintenance pursuant to a Court Order and consider a change in your circumstances or your ex-spouse’s circumstances may enable you to vary the Order or apply to bring it to an end, or if you are a recipient party and are not receiving spousal maintenance pursuant to a Court Order, it is advisable to see a family law Solicitor and take advice.

Can you overturn a court order?

Yes. In certain circumstances it is possible to either appeal a Court Order, set a Court Order aside or obtain a ‘Stay’ of a Court Order. There are strict time limits for applying to appeal a Court Order therefore it is advisable to see a family law solicitor without delay if you are considering whether you are able to overturn a Court Order.

For more information on the issues raised in this blog please do not hesitate to contact us.

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