Representation of Divorce, Child Residency, and Contact in Film

Divorce and Child Residency are often poorly represented in films and television. Looking at the 90s classics, The Parent Trap and Mrs Doubtfire, Watermans Legal highlight how Divorce and Child Residency and Contact (which used to commonly be referred to as Child Custody and Access) are represented by Hollywood.

The Parent Trap:

The Parent Trap Film Poster

Twins Annie and Hallie are strangers until they meet at summer camp. The pair discover that they are siblings and that their divorced parents are living on either side of the Atlantic. Each having residency for one of them. The pair then pursue an identity swap plan, hoping to reunite their parents.

The film supports the concept that divorce tears families apart. According to the Twins and Multiple Births Association, families with twins are statistically more likely to separate. Additionally, although their father’s new fiancée, Meredith truly is the worst, the film gives stepparents a poor representation. A major part of the film’s plot is preventing their father from remarrying by playing pranks, swapping identities, and setting traps. Despite what Disney tries to sell audiences, stepparents are often not a threat to a family unit and parents do not always reconcile. Many families are able to communicate and work together and are often happier post separation.

During a child contact/residency case, a court will consider the following:

  • Where possible, the views of a child, if the child is deemed old enough/articulate enough to express a view.
  • The welfare of the child and what would be in their best interests.
  • The stability of both parents and their circumstances and ability to care for their child
  • What the care arrangements have been since the child was born.

Parent Trap Scene- boat date

A ‘Parent Trap’ situation is rare. In real life Family-Law child contact/residency cases, a court will decide on an outcome that is for the best interests of the children. Keeping siblings together is the ideal solution. Parents can then come to an agreement on shared contact/residency arrangements. However, in the rare occasion that siblings are unable to safely live together, a  court could separate them.

It is not uncommon for one parent to wish to relocate following a divorce. They may wish to have their child with them. Yet, if the other parent objects to their relocation, then a court can decide on the matter.

Influencing the Children (Scotland) Act 2020

It wasn’t until 2020 that the Scottish Government addressed sibling separation and contact through legislation. (Although sibling relationships have been protected under the European Convention on Human Rights and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.) This new Act enforces a legal duty to promote and maintain sibling contact. This will either be through keeping the siblings together or promote regular contact between them in cases that they are separated.

Mrs Doubtfire:

Mrs Doubtfire Film Poster

In an attempt to see more of his children after his divorce, Daniel Hillard dresses as an old Scottish woman and is hired by his ex-wife as a nanny. The disguise works, and Mrs Doubtfire wins over the children, allowing Daniel to become a better father.

The film highlights that even though Daniel loses the battle for care of his children, not all fathers are absentees after divorce. Daniel is granted supervised contact with his children once a week. The mother, Miranda allows the courts to believe that her ex-husband is unfit to care for his children.

Although divorce can be challenging on a family, Robin Williams’ character takes the drastic step to dress up as the nanny in an attempt to spend more time with his children and hilarity ensues. Of course, in reality we would always advise against identity fraud…and bringing a petting zoo into the house.

Mrs Doubtfire Film Scene- Pool party

Supervised contact   often takes place where there is a history of concern over a parent, and therefore their abilities to provide sufficient care is put into question. Although this situation can be difficult and having your contact time supervised by a third party can create a very artificial setting, contact sessions go well, perhaps in time the contact will no longer need to be supervised. If the contact is being supervised in a contact centre, the feedback from the member of staff can be used as evidence for any future amendments to contact agreements and to assess parenting skills.

When clients cannot concur on contact arrangements, lawyers can act as mediators to help separated couples come up with a fair system that works for both parties.

  After a separation or divorce, courts view it as beneficial for children to remain in contact with both parents. Families can take time to adjust after a divorce or separation. The end of Mrs Doubtfire demonstrates that it is possible to adapt to the new situation. Families can be happy after divorce.