Following the lockdown announcement last Monday evening, we have received further guidance from the Head of Family Justice on how best to advise separated families on the arrangements for their children.
I know many people are worried about whether they are doing the right thing, especially where they have a Child Arrangements Order in place and they know that their children should be seeing the other parent. I hope that the following offers some reassurance to those affected during this difficult time.
The guidance can be summarised in two points.
- There is an overriding expectation that parents will care for their children by acting sensibly and safely when making decisions regarding the arrangements for them.
In many cases, this will require the parties to put aside their differences and show as much tolerance, flexibility and understanding as possible for the safety of their children and those around them. It will inevitably be very tough on a parent who does not see their child at the usual time but the overwhelming objective must be to preserve their health and that of those around them.
- We are all now subject to the Stay at Home Rules issued by the government on 23rd March 2020 but the following exception applies to child contact arrangements:
“Where parents do not live in the same household, children under 18 can be moved between their parents’ homes.”
The key word here is “can”. This exception does not mean that a child must be moved between homes, even if an Order says they should.
It is down to the child’s parents to assess the risk of moving the child having regard to:
- the child’s present health
- the risk of infection
- the presence of any recognised vulnerable people in one household or the other.
What does this mean in practice?
Q: What if there is a Child Arrangements Order in place and the parents agree that it is not sensible to keep to the terms of the Order?
A: In those circumstances, the guidance confirms that the parties are free to deviate from the terms of the Order, on a temporary basis. It is recommended that the parents record that they have agreed not to follow the order – this should be done by each parent sending a note, email or text message to the other confirming the agreement.
Q: What if there is a Child Arrangements Order in place and the parents are unable to agree on what should happen?
A: One parent is able to act alone and may vary the terms of the Order to an arrangement which they consider to be safe.
In making that decision, it is advisable that the parent is able to show that:
- they are sufficiently concerned that following the Order would be against the current Public Health England/Public Health World advice
- they are acting reasonably and sensibly in light of the current official advice and Stay at Home Rules
Q: What if usual contact cannot be maintained?
A: The parent with care of the child must make alternative arrangements to ensure that contact with the other parent is established and maintained within the Stay at Home Rules. For example, there should be remote video contact via Facetime, WhatsApp Facetime, Skype or Zoom or, if none of those are possible, by telephone.
If you are in the position of trying to manage the contact arrangements for your child during this difficult time then it is absolutely crucial to communicate. Wherever possible, attempt to discuss the situation with the other parent, express any concerns and worries you have, and try to agree on the best temporary solution for you all, prioritising the health of you, your child and others in your household.
You may be extremely worried about the health of your loved ones during this crisis, and you will not be alone, whilst the other parent may be less worried and may still expect contact to take place. Communicating your worries is an entirely reasonable thing to do and hopefully, in light of the Government’s guidance, they will be met with understanding and flexibility and a satisfactory, temporary, solution can be reached for all concerned.
If you need further advice on applying this guidance to your personal situation, or any other family law issue, please do not hesitate to get in touch. As a family law solicitor based in Eastbourne Sussex I have been specialising in family law since 2002 and I am here to support you with any family issues you may have. Please do not hesitate to contact me for a free initial chat on 01323 356008 or email me at Brigitte.Shakespeare@cognitivelaw.co.uk
Further support and resources for parents during the present crisis can also be found at:
New Service: Co-parenting during the coronavirus crisis – this is a new service set up by National Family Mediation
www.relate.org.uk – advice and tips for keeping relationships healthy during lockdown/self-isolation