COVID-19 and the effect on children arrangements for separated parents
On the 23rd March 2020, the Prime Minister addressed the nation and told us:
“I am giving the British people the simple instruction: you must stay home”.
He went on to set out the strict exceptions to this rule. These are:
- To carry out essential shopping.
- Daily exercise (once only and as close to home as possible).
- Attend to medical needs, or to provide care or help to a vulnerable person.
- Travelling for work purposes but only when you cannot work from home.
The big question for those separated families with children, is what is the effect of the Stay at Home Rule on them and those families where there is a Child Arrangements Order?
Quickly after the Stay at Home Rule was announced, the Government added another exception to the Rule which is:
“Where parents do not live in the same household, children under 18 can be moved between their parents homes”.
If parents are going through a court dispute over the arrangements for their children, the courts often turn to advice from Cafcass (www.cafcass.gov.uk) who are often described as the “eyes and ears” of the court. The courts themselves are alive to the current issues that parents face and below are examples of some of the guidance made by both Cafcass and the courts:
- Children should keep their usual routine of spending time with each of their parents. If there is a Child Arrangements Order this should be complied with unless to do so would put your child, or others at risk. This will help your child to feel a sense of consistency, whilst also reassuring them that the parent they don't always live with is safe and healthy.
- The exception to the Stay at Home Rule for children arrangements does not automatically mean children must be moved between homes and whether or not this happens should always be after the parents have made a sensible assessment of a child’s health, the risks of infection and whether there are vulnerable individuals in either home.
- If you're not able to maintain your child's routine due to illness or self-isolation, or any relatives/friends who normally support your child’s contact, then communicate clearly and honestly with your co-parent. If it is not safe for you to communicate directly (e.g., if there has been a history of domestic abuse) then consider using a trusted third party to help you.
- If any court ordered arrangements are missed, think about how you and your co- parent may be able to make up your child’s time after the restrictions are lifted. Remember, any rearranged contact should always be for your child’s benefit and should not be used as a source of tension or conflict; especially at a time when your child is likely to be feeling anxious about the effects of the pandemic.
- Where parents agree that a Child Arrangements Order should be changed as a temporary measure, they are free to do so. It would be sensible for each parent to record this agreement in a note, email or text message sent to each other.
- Where it becomes unavoidable to change a Child Arrangements Order because of infection, self-isolation or risk to another vulnerable member of your household, the family courts will expect alternative arrangements to be made to maintain regular contact, for example by Face-Time, WhatsApp Face-Time, Skype, Zoom or other video connection or, if that is not possible, by telephone.
There are of course families where children arrangements are not as straightforward as the children going from one home to another; e.g., there might be good reasons why some children are spending time with their parents in a supervised or a supported setting. Additionally, some handovers take place at a public venue with CCTV.
As a result of the Stay at Home Rule, many child contact centres are closed for the time being or community contact cannot now take place at a public venue, such as a soft play centre, leisure centre, etc where will parents spend time with their children. In those cases, direct contact might not be able to take place safely until the government advice on leaving our homes changes. However, even then, parents should look at alternative arrangements of video/telephone contact.
If you are a parent who has concerns about the arrangements for your child or children to spend time with the other parent due to the Stay at Home Rule or you are a parent that is facing difficulties in seeing your child or children since the Covid-19 outbreak, then the family team at Leeds Day are here to help. All three of our family law specialists are highly experienced having practiced exclusively in family law for more than 60 years between them. Either send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or telephone one of our solicitors direct (Simon Thomas: 01480 442078; Lee Bailham: 01480 442039 or Lisa Leader: 01480 442091).