As daily life grinds to a halt, millions of separated parents have been worried that during the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, they will not be able to see their child or children who do not live with them full time. The Government has advised everyone to stay at home unless for “very limited purposes”. The national media has reported on wrong advice provided by a Cabinet Minister which has caused confusion and distress for parents.
On 24th March 2020, the President of the Family Division, Sir Andrew McFarlane provided a short statement offering advice to those parents whose children are the subject of Child Arrangements Orders made by the family court. You can read Sir Andrew McFarlane’s short statement by clicking here.
The points below provide answers by our team of specialist family law advisors to frequently asked questions by anxious separated parents during these unprecedented times.
Does the lockdown prevent me from seeing my child?
Where parents do not live in the same household, children can continue to spend time with each parent in their separate households.
This does not mean that children must be moved between their parents’ homes. Parents will need to talk through concerns and be open to new arrangements. Communication between parents is very important to work together to make a decision as to whether a child should move between parental homes. Parents should consider important factors such as the:
- child’s present health;
- risk of infection, such as where one parent or members of their household displays any symptoms; and
- presence of any recognised vulnerable individuals in one household or the other, such as grandparents.
Can I re-evaluate co-parenting arrangements?
The pandemic is already causing separated parents to rethink contact and living arrangements for their children. As workplaces close or require employees to work from home, many parents may find opportunities to adjust schedules so the child can be cared for by one parent or the other, rather than extended family or child-care providers.
Parents will need to be as flexible as possible with the arrangements. You should try to be a team in this situation and come to an agreement with your co-parent as to how arrangements are to continue. Parental disputes should be avoided as much as possible in the best interest of the children. Many parents and children will feel anxiety, uncertainty and frustration while living through this pandemic. Children need stability and re-assurance from their parents during these times.
Parents, acting in agreement, can take steps to vary a Child Arrangements Order. You may feel that your current arrangement involves extensive movement between households and if so, you and your co-parent should try and come to an agreement that limits travel between households.
If one parent is missing out on time with the children, consider agreeing additional holiday time later in the year.
Parents should record such variation to arrangements by email or text message sent to each other.
What if I can’t agree a variation to the co-parenting arrangements with the other parent?
Sadly, there are many parents for whom communication is difficult and sometimes impossible.
In the absence of an agreement, if one parent is reasonably concerned that complying with the arrangements would be against the Government’s public health advice in place at that time, then that parent may temporarily vary the arrangement to one that they consider to be safe.
Family mediators will be available to assist parents to agree reasonable arrangements.
If one parent feels that they are being unfairly excluded, an application can still be made to court to enforce a Child Arrangements Order or to vary the arrangements. The court will be dealing with court hearings remotely. It is recommended that specialist legal advice is obtained before taking steps to issue a court application.
It cannot be stressed enough that the pandemic should not be used as an excuse to change parenting arrangements. Avoid game-playing. This is not the time to keep a detailed account of how many overnights the other parent has had with the children.
Parents should be aware that in the event of a dispute, the family court is likely to look to see whether each parent acted reasonably and sensibly in light of the official Government advice, together with any specific evidence relating to the child or family in the event of disputes.
What are the alternative arrangements if I cannot see my child?
If children are unable to see the other parent regularly or at all, parents can make use of regular telephone call and video calls such as WhatsApp, Zoom, Skype and FaceTime to ensure both co-parents maintain regular contact with the child.
What if I or my co-parent is experiencing symptoms?
Government advice is if someone in your household presents symptoms of coronavirus, the entire household must self-isolate for 14 days. After the expiry of the self-isolation period and if no further symptoms are displayed, contact can continue, and your children can move between households.
What activities with the children should be agreed as co-parents during these times?
It is advisable to agree as co-parents what is and what is not appropriate during each parent’s time with the children, such as going to the local park or supermarket with the children. The Government’s current guideline is that so long as you are maintaining a safe social distance of 2 metres from people who aren’t part of your household, you and your children may go outside for exercise, a walk or shopping for essentials.
Will the courts close due to the coronavirus outbreak?
Courts are endeavouring to make alternative arrangements, such as telephone hearings and video call hearings. If you want to know more about your local court, you can check the Government website https://www.gov.uk/government/organisations/hm-courts-and-tribunals-service and email the court directly.
Helpful information and web-links for parents
1. Practical tips on how to help children see the other parent can be found here
2. CAFCASS guidance
3. How to help children keep in contact with their elderly relatives
4. How to talk to children about COVID-19 and reducing their anxiety