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Help when you can’t agree

When you have a child, there are certain things that are essential to discuss and agree with their other parent. For single parents, this often includes agreeing how and when your child will see their other parent. 

This isn’t always easy – and it can be very distressing to feel like you’re going around in circles. But there are ways you can get help to communicate and reach agreement with your child’s other parent, even if you see things very differently.


Negotiating through a solicitor

Family arbitration

Asking a family court to decide

Useful links

If you can’t negotiate with your child’s other parent because they‘ve threatened or been violent to you or your child, get legal help. It’s important to know your rights and what support you can get, including help with legal fees.


This is when you work through things together with the help of a trained mediator. They’ll make sure you both have your say as you talk through the issues. They won’t take sides or give advice, and mediation isn’t counselling. They’ll keep the conversation focused and balanced. If what you’re discussing involves your child, they may even talk to your child if it’s appropriate and you agree to this.

when is it helpful?

Mediation works best when you both want to find a solution, but are struggling to agree because you have very different views. It’s often cheaper and quicker than negotiating through a solicitor or going to court. But it’s not usually suitable if you’ve experienced domestic, emotional or financial abuse.

No one can be forced to go to mediation. But if you end up in court, you usually have to show that you had at least 1 mediation session. This isn’t always the case – when there’s been domestic abuse, for example. 

A mediator will not give you legal advice, but they’ll tell you if they think you need it. They should also be able to give you information about local family solicitors and how to choose one.

Is it legally binding?

If you reach an agreement, the mediator will write what’s called a memorandum of understanding for you. This isn’t legally binding. But if you have an agreement about money or property that you want to be binding, you can ask a court to turn it into a consent order. The court will make sure the agreement is fair before they do this.

Getting a consent order normally costs £53. If you’re on a low income, it may be less.


Mediation usually happens in person. But if one of you lives abroad or is physically unable to get to a mediation session, it is possible to do this online. Most people need between 3 and 5 sessions to sort things out, but this does of course vary.

The cost varies, too. Always check this and agree how you’ll pay before you start. If you’re on a low income, you might be able to get free mediation sessions and legal advice through legal aid. You might also be able to get £500 to pay for mediation through the Family Mediation Voucher Scheme.

You can find a nearby mediator through the Family Mediation Council. 

Suzie’s story

Hear single mum Suzie talk about her experience of mediation (from Family Mediators Association)

Negotating through a solicitor

If mediation doesn’t work or isn’t an option, you can ask a family law solicitor to negotiate for you. 

The solicitor will give you advice about how to move forward – and it’s up to you to decide what you want to do. They might suggest meeting with your child’s other parent and their solicitor face-to-face and trying to reach an agreement around the table. 

Costs for this can add up. You can usually only get legal aid for family issues when there’s been domestic violence or if your case is considered exceptional for some other reason.

You can find family law solicitors who take a non-confrontational and constructive approach through Resolution.

Family arbitration

Arbitration is similar to going to court, but a fair and impartial arbitrator makes the decision instead of a judge. You and the other parent can choose the arbitrator, where the hearing takes place, and what you want to focus on. 

Arbitration is legally binding, so you have to stick to the arbitrator’s decision. Even though it costs money and you can’t get legal aid for it, it can still be quicker and cheaper than going to court. 

The Institute of Family Law Arbitrators has lots more information about how arbitration works and finding an arbitrator.

Asking a family court to decide

Going to court should be a last resort. It can be expensive, stressful and time-consuming – and you might not get the outcome you want.

Before you can apply for a court order, you usually have to show that you’ve been to at least 1 meeting with a mediator. This is called a Mediation Information Assessment Meeting (MIAM). If there’s been domestic abuse, you don’t have to do this.

The court will encourage you to reach an agreement first. If this isn’t possible, the court might have to issue an order. The most common orders relating to children are:

  • Parental responsibility order – gives a parent or carer the legal rights and responsibilities of a parent. See our page on parental responsibility for more
  • Child arrangements order – sets out when a child sees and stays with a particular person, usually a parent. See our page on child contact arrangements for more
  • Specific issue order – decides a particular point of disagreement, like a child’s school or religion
  • Prohibited steps order – stops a person doing something with or to a child, for example, taking a child abroad or picking them up from school
What the court considers

The court will always put the child’s needs first. So they’ll only make an order if they see this as best for the child. This is known as ‘the welfare principle’.

There are certain things that a court looks at when deciding what’s in a child’s best interests. This is known as the ‘welfare checklist’. They’ll think about all angles of the case, but these considerations come first:

  • The child’s wishes and feelings (taking into consideration their age and understanding)
  • The child’s physical, emotional and educational needs
  • The likely effect on the child of any changes
  • The child’s age, sex, background and anything else the court thinks is relevant
  • The risk of harm to the child
  • How capable each of the parents (or other relevant person) is of meeting the child’s needs
  • The powers available to the court

If you’re thinking about applying for a court order or your child’s other parent has applied for one, you might want to get legal advice. If you can’t afford to pay for this, see if you qualify for legal aid. There are also places who give free legal advice like Child Law Advice  and Rights of Women.

Date last updated: 31 October 2023

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