Child Custody in the UK – The Basics

As a parent, it goes without saying – you always want to do what’s best for your child. This includes making sure that they receive the proper care, attention and support they need, especially during difficult times that come with events like separation or divorce.

Child custody is a sensitive and complex matter that can cause stress and anxiety for everyone involved. So, in order to make informed decisions and protect your legal rights, it’s really important to gain a deep understanding of child custody laws in the UK. 

In this guide, our family lawyers cover everything you need to know about child custody in the UK, including the types of custody, how it’s determined, and what steps you can take to ensure that the best interests are met for you child. 

Understanding Child Custody in the UK

In the UK, child custody is referred to as “child arrangement orders.” These orders outline where the child will live and with whom, and how much time they will spend with each parent. Child arrangement orders are designed to protect the child’s best interests, taking into account their physical, emotional, and educational needs.

In the video below, our Head of Professional Development and experienced child custody lawyer, Dr Bernard Andonian discusses this aspect of UK family law which is also outlined in this article.

Types of Child Custody in the UK

In the UK, there are two main types of child custody which include sole custody and joint custody.

  • Sole custody is when one parent has primary care and control of the child.
  • Joint custody is when both parents have a shared responsibility for the child’s upbringing and care. This includes decisions about education, healthcare, and other important aspects of the child’s life.
There can be several other arrangements for child custody as well, beyond just sole and joint custody, such as, physical custody, legal custody, co-parenting, etc. Each arrangement aims to address the best interests of the child, considering various factors such as the parents’ living situations, the child’s needs, and the parental capabilities.

Who gets Custody of a Child in a Divorce in the UK?

In the UK more so than often, when a divorce or separation takes place both parents maintain joint custody of the child which means that a child will spend half of his/her time with one its parents and the other half with the other. It also means that parents if choosing the joint custody route can both participate in the decision making that surrounds the child’s life. 

However, if things get ugly, which they sometimes do, and both parents can not agree on what the living arrangements will be for the child/children, then this will be left down to the decision of the courts. 

Determining Child Custody in the UK

When determining child custody in the UK, the UK family courts will consider a a whole variety of factors, including the child’s welfare, their wishes and feelings, and the parents’ ability to provide for their needs in an appropriate manner. 

The courts will also consider any instances of abuse, neglect, or violence when making their decision on the custody of the child or children. It’s important to note that each case is unique, and the court’s decision will depend on the individual circumstances.

Child Custody and Access

Access – When a couple separates and they have a child or children, they must decide on how to allocate time to spend between them with their child or children. This process is called access.

Custody – When a couple must decide on which parent will be making the major decisions in the child/children’s life, i.e. how to raise the child/children and care for him/her/them. 

Both of the above combined are referred to as parenting plans.

What are Parental Legal Disputes?

Intense disputes between married couples usually end up in front of a judge at a family court. Even though this is the case, the court will always think of the best interests for the child/children and in many cases, such disputes end with either “agreed residency” or “joint residency”. 

What is Joint Residency?

The outcome of joint residency for a child or children after separation of parents is the preferred outcome which serves the best interests of everyone, child/children and parents. However, the UK has no specific laws that state that a child/children should live specifically with either the mother or father.

Choosing the path of joint residency will let both of the parents have an equal amount of time and an equal share of the physical care of their child/children. 

Assuming joint residency becomes the path of your separation, then both of you as parents will have an equal responsibility to work out the details based on what is based for the child or children. If a decision can not be reached, then parents can seek mediation or take the case to court for a judge to decide. 

What are Custody Disputes?

Custody disputes usually involve the child’s mother and father but in some cases can involve a third party, for example, a grandparent who could be trying to get custody of the child/children because of the death of his her parents or for extenuating circumstance related to the inability of the parent to look after the child/children. 

If a case like this goes to court, the court will generally accept that a parent is usually the best person to care for the welfare of the child/children.

There have been a number of circumstances where one of the parents could be excluded from having any contact with the child/children. However this decision can be reversed at any point by the courts should the circumstances or behaviour of the parent in question change. 

Our team of family solicitors London can help you if you are in the unfortunate situation of having restricted access to your child/children. If you find yourself in this situation, you can re-apply again at any time to gain “access”, and a court will reconsider the decision after examining the evidence. We can look at your case and advise you on what will work best for you. 

In the UK, the courts accept custody arrangements that have been prepared and submitted by the parents as part of their wider separation agreement. However, the court will definitely make sure that the arrangements put forward are logical and practical and whether they serve the child’s best interests by providing the circumstances that the child/children will need to have a good life. 

The court can also look at the role of grandparents and other influential adults in the child’s life during its decision-making process.

The Duration of a Custody Battle in the UK

Determining an exact timeline for custody disputes in the UK is quite challenging as numerous aspects greatly influence it. The factors range from the intricacies of the case, the willingness of the parents to reach a consensus to the volume of cases pending in the court system.

When the parents are amicable and are able to reach an agreement on the custodial responsibilities quickly, the duration of the entire procedure could potentially be just a few months. Often, both parties prioritise the welfare of the child, and thus, the court’s only task is to provide the final ratification.

On the other hand, if the case is stuck with complexity, such as accusations of domestic violence or substance abuse, or one of the parents objecting to relocation, the custody dispute could extend beyond a year. An additional factor contributing to this lengthy process could be the backlog of cases in the Family Court, which could result in delays in hearings or trial dates, further extending the procedure.

During this time, the court might enforce a temporary order, offering an interim care arrangement for the child. This ensures a certain level of stability until a permanent decision is made.

Valid Grounds for Obtaining Full Custody in the UK

The preference of courts generally leans towards Joint Custody, as it enables the child to sustain a relationship with both parents. However, some conditions justify assigning sole custody to one parent.

  • Parental Unfitness: If a parent is struggling with issues like addiction or mental health issues or displays little interest or capability to provide sufficient care for the child, they may be classified as ‘unfit.’
  • Record of Neglect or Abuse: If a parent has a recorded history of child negligence, abuse, or domestic violence, the courts are keen to grant full custody to the other parent to protect the child’s welfare and safety.
  • Conviction or Criminal Background: If a parent’s criminal past involves violent or damaging actions, the opposite parent might obtain full guardianship. Just like that, if one parent is serving a prison sentence, full custody is usually granted to the other parent.
  • Inability to Provide for the Child’s Needs: This means situations when one parent is unable to meet the basic parental responsibility needs of the child, such as education, medical care, food, and shelter. This inability might arise from financial insecurity, severe sickness, or physical disability.
  • Intention to Relocate: Should one parent plan to relocate a considerable distance away, the court might assign full custody to the parent staying within the child’s habitual residence to maintain continuity in the child’s life.
  • Parental Alienation: If a parent intentionally pushes the child to reject the other parent, it could be a valid reason for the other parent to secure full guardianship.
  • Child’s Preference: Based on the child’s age and understanding, UK courts might consider the child’s own choice in deciding guardianship.

Steps You Can Take to Protect Your Child’s Best Interests

If you are having a divorce or separation and are concerned about child custody, there are a number of steps you can take to protect your child’s interests. 

First, it’s important to work with a qualified family law solicitor like our team at Gulbenkian Andonian Solicitors who have in-depth experience in child custody cases and a high track record of success in the courts. We will be able to provide you with expert legal advice and guidance, and help you navigate the complex legal system.

It’s also really important to maintain a positive relationship with your ex-partner, as this can help to reduce stress and conflict for your child. Try to communicate openly and respectfully, and focus on the needs and well-being of your child as the absolute priority.

Finally, it’s important to put your child’s safety first. This means prioritising their safety, health, and education, and working together with your ex-partner to create a stable and nurturing environment for your child during this very difficult time.

Our Family Law services

Our legal team can help you with all aspects of UK Family Law – including divorce and separation – whether you are married, living together and/or in a civil partnership. We have many years of experience and can offer mediation and counselling alongside other services to help us meet your specific circumstances.


No, UK courts do not have a natural preference for mothers in custody battles. The court considers the child’s best interests, and both parents are assumed equal under the law.

The typical custody arrangement in the UK often involves joint custody, where both parents share the responsibility of raising the child. The specific amount of time each parent spends with the child may vary depending on the family’s unique circumstances and what is best for the child.

Yes, a father can win custody of his child in the UK. The courts will assess the child’s well-being, each parent’s capability to supervise the child’s necessities, and other relevant factors to make decisions. The parent’s gender does not play a role in this determination.

In the UK, there is no automatic privilege to a 50/50 custody split between parents. However, if both parents mutually agree and it is in the best interests of the child, they can arrange for joint custody. If an arrangement cannot be achieved, the court will determine what is in the child’s welfare.

While there is no specific age, as a child becomes older and more mature, their opinions carry more weight in the court’s decision-making process. Generally, around the age of 16, the child’s preferences may significantly influence the court’s decision as long as it aligns with the best interests of the child.

Ask our team of expert Family Lawyers about your case.