We are living in exceptionally challenging times and those dealing with family arrangements are understandably concerned about the impact of Covid-19 upon their current arrangements and Court Orders in respect of preserving both direct and indirect contact with their children. We have been dealing with an increasing number of queries from worried clients and want to share our guidance and top tips more widely, to assist separated and divorced parents, at this difficult time.
Inevitably we do not have all the answers (no one does, or can, as was clear from Michael Gove’s TV interview on the issue this morning), in this fast-moving situation. What we recommend below reflects this. Much of what we say is not “new” either, but bears repeating.
In general, please bear in the mind the following:
• you are both parents who love your children and want what is best for them
• be prepared to re tool your routines
• demonstrate the behaviour towards the other parent that you want to see
• if possible try to agree weekly remote planning meetings with the other parent to discuss any necessary changes, occasioned by illness or government/NHS guidance
• remember that existing agreements and Court Orders were not made with these exceptional circumstances in mind, so please continue to adopt a “child-centred” approach which is practical and proportionate
• Courts will not welcome (and have no capacity at this time to deal with) applications from warring parents, rushing to submit applications for new Orders and enforcement of existing ones, simply because Covid-19 throws existing arrangements out for a yet unknown period
• be understanding and accommodating if either parent is a keyworker doing long shifts
• put any personally negative feelings you may have towards the other parent aside and initiate an early and open dialogue on emergency planning and how to deal with last-minute arrangement changes if the other parent is hospitalised or incapacitated by illness and is forced to self-isolate
• discuss what will happen if the parent who has care of the children at any given time is hospitalised or incapacitated
• ask if you can help the other parent by doing shopping/pharmacy collections if they and the children are self-isolating
• don’t use the current crisis to “score points” and stop facilitating contact unnecessarily
Here is an example of the type of emails we are already receiving from Contact Centres:
“Unfortunately, we are going to have to cancel the handover for tomorrow. We are working on a depleted team due to the coronavirus (staff are homebased workers – not unwell) and our service has had to respond accordingly. We will no longer open the centre on Saturdays and during the week we have had to prioritise families that are in proceedings.”
Since we received that email the position has no doubt changed again, as a result of the Government’s statement last night and the Centre may now be closed, save for cases involving children in the care of the Local Authority, but we anticipate this will also change if it has not already done so today.
COVID 19 clauses were already being built into Child Arrangements Orders last week that look like this:
“In the event of a lock down, as ordered by the government, as a result of the Covid 19 virus, the respondent mother/father shall make xxx available for contact for three sessions of facetime contact each week.”
So, the message is clear – use Facetime, Skype, Zoom and similar methods to facilitate contact wherever possible, with the agreement of the other parent, in order to reduce the potential for child and parent exposure to the virus. It is currently still permissible for parents to allow the children to travel between their parental homes but be sensible and avoid unnecessary exposure wherever possible with child’s best interests in mind. Lost days can always be given back later when it is safe to do so.
Continue to support and facilitate existing contact with the wider family on both sides, via social media and other electronic methods wherever possible. This will mean a great deal to the children, grandparents and others in the higher risk groups.
Remember to focus on your child’s mental and physical well being at a time of fear and uncertainty. Understandably routines are disrupted by school and nursery closures and this in unsettling for your child and you. The child will need additional reassurance and support.
Please, please, please put financial disputes around child and spousal maintenance aside at this time. Whether payments are made voluntarily, by court order or are paid via CMEC, now is not the time to deal with them unless you are facing real financial hardship. In cases of real need talk to the other parent to see if they can assist you. After all your children need both of you to get through this very difficult period. Yes, in normal circumstances a child may have a certain number of over-night stays with the other parent that that is reflected in the usual calculation, but arrangements are, of necessity, fluid at the moment and people are losing their jobs, being furloughed and facing reduced hours to save their jobs on an increasing basis. By all means, keep a record of any disruption for use later if necessary.
In order to encourage effective co-parenting during the outbreak, CAFCASS have released advice regarding maintaining child arrangements which can be found here. However, please bear in mind that this advice is inevitably subject to change.
• Sending my child for contact – will I be in face court sanctions and judicial criticism if I do not?
We do not advise breaching court orders, they must be complied with, however we are in uncharted territory ….every effort should be made to comply with an existing order if it is safe to do so- you should stick to them and so should the other parent.
Remember, “contact” is a generic term and thus includes “shared care”. Contact can be “direct” so face to face, or “indirect”, so via other methods including telephone, Skype, Facetime etc. As we have said above, you need to do all that is reasonably possible to facilitate contact via other methods, in order to avoid any later suggestion that you have been obstructive to facilitating contact.
• If anyone in your household is symptomatic and you are therefore self-isolating you should not be sending your child for contact with their other parent.
• If anyone in the other parent’s household is symptomatic or they are self-isolating you should not be sending your child for contact with their other parent.
• If your child is poorly with something that might be coronavirus do not send them for contact.
• If proceeding with “direct” contact means that you and your child would have to travel on public transport, ask the other parent to collect them. If they can’t then “direct” contact may not be possible at this time
• If you or the other parent cannot collect the child because you now have unexpected childcare or work commitments due to coronavirus, please let the other parent know in good time if possible and explain why and send and email to confirm the reasons
• What will happen about Court hearings?
If you have a hearing listed in the next month be prepared for it to be cancelled by the Court, possibly at short notice. If you have solicitors acting for you keep in regular contact with them and seek advice. We are aware that Courts, which were already struggling with significant under investment in technology, are really facing the strain. The same applies to the use of Contact Centres, mediation services and scheduled CAFCASS meetings. If you are using privately funded mediation services you may be able to arrange remote sessions so that these can continue.
For an initial FREE consultation on any aspect of family law, call Manders Law on 01245 895 105 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Note: this blog is intended to give an overview (rather than comprehensive guidance and advice) on your legal position.