Child Arrangement Orders (CAOs) have been in force since April 2014. They replaced Residence and Contact Orders.  They can only be enforced until a child is 16, although the wishes and feelings of the child will be taken into account from around age 9 and upwards. They regulate with whom a child lives or spends time.


Courts routinely attach warning and penal notices  to these orders. The courts can impose sanctions on anyone who has breached a CAO.  A penal notice on an order makes it clear that disobedience with the Order may be punishable by imprisonment or fine, confiscation of assets or another punishment such as unpaid work.


The central consideration is the welfare of the child involved. The court must be satisfied (A) beyond reasonable doubt that there has been a failure to comply with a CAO and (B) that an Enforcement Order is necessary to secure further compliance.  The likely effect of the order must be proportionate. So the judge must ask whether the original order can instead be changed to ensure compliance or if mediation can assist. Mediation might apply for instance if a parent and child are always turning up late for the child to be handed over to the other parent.


The courts must also obtain information about the person who is in breach of the Order and must take into account their religious beliefs and financial circumstances.


On an application for enforcement of a CAO, the courts can make an Order for:


  • financial compensation (if for instance a holiday has been missed due a child not being made available for the holiday);
  • a fine;
  • committal to prison;
  • variation to the CAO including changing the parent with whom a child should live in the most extreme circumstances;
  • a referral to mediation or another “out of court” option.


There is a defence against an Enforcement Order if someone has a reasonable excuse for failing to comply with the Order. The person could show evidence that the child was unwell or there were safeguarding concerns. Cessation of contact as a self help remedy is a last resort and generally frowned on.  If safeguarding is an issue, an application for a variation to the CAO can be made whilst looking at practical alternatives such as having supervised contact with other family members, or at a contact centre or with an independent social worker.