Lodders’ team of Family Law experts answer the important questions on how to adhere to court-ordered child arrangements between separated parents during the coronavirus lockdown.
The government instituted lockdown of all but the most essential travel has thrown up a number of challenges for families. A significant concern is children moving between separated parent’s homes, and parents’ adhering to previously agreed or Court Ordered Child Arrangements for live with/time spent/shared care arrangements.
The government, CAFCASS, and the President of the Family Division have now updated their guidance to families, to assist in this most unprecedented of times. Their guidance can be viewed at the links below:
Adhering to existing arrangements
How can parents adhere to existing agreed or ordered child arrangements for children to spend time with each parent when the country is in lockdown?
On 24 March 2020, the Government clarified that the restriction on people’s movements outside of their home does not mean children under-18 cannot move from the home of one parent to the other.
However the President of the Family Division has since clarified that this does not mean that children must be moved between homes. He has stated, “The decision whether a child is to move between parental homes is for the child’s parents to make after a sensible assessment of the circumstances, including the child’s present health, the risk of infection and the presence of any recognised vulnerable individuals in one household or the other.”
If parents are able to take children to the co-parents’ home or arrange collection (preferably avoiding public transport), and it is safe for the children and other individuals in the household for this to happen, then children should continue to spend time with both parents, in accordance with the Child Arrangements Order or existing agreement.
How can the child arrangements continue safely?
If it is agreed that children will continue to spend time with each parent, parents should adhere to the following guidelines:
- Avoid public transport if possible when the children are travelling between the 2 homes.
- Everyone should wash and sanitise hands when leaving and arriving at home.
- Avoid passing too many possessions between the households. Any bags, hard surfaces, etc. handed over should be wiped down with bacterial wipes.
- If there is a sign of symptoms or a confirmed diagnosis for the infection, the normal child arrangements should be suspended and Public Health advice should be followed. There should however be Facetime, messaging, and telephone contact with the absent parent during any self-isolation period. After the isolation period, if the time missed by the children with the other parent can be made up, try to agree arrangements for this, as this is likely to be important for the children.
Communicating concerns and changes
Parents should do their utmost to communicate any concerns they have with the other parent and discuss and agree any changes required to the routine child arrangements.
Parents should aim to be proactive and imaginative, for example:
- Allow the children to make a video for the parent with whom they are not living.
- Try to reach an agreement about what is permitted during contact, for example, avoiding the local park and not attending any retail outlets.
- Try to agree on how homeschooling can take place. Should school books/learning resources travel between homes?
- Try to agree, if possible, to “make up” missed holiday time, if that can be achieved without disrupting the children’s usual pattern.
- Try to limit the frequency of movement between the two homes
CAFCASS makes clear that civil and child-focused co-operation in co-parenting separate and apart is key to supporting children at all times, but especially in these extraordinary circumstances.
Parents should take care not to discuss the adult matters (for example, any changes to the routine arrangements for the children to move between the households, conversations with solicitors about these arrangements, or Court hearings) within earshot of the children. This will be testing at this time, as the children are not at school and are in the home. However, CAFCASS is clear that exposure of the children to such adult matters will be unsettling and anxious for them.
Term time and holiday
Should this period be classed as term time or holiday?
Despite the children not currently attending school, CAFCASS has made clear this is not a ‘school holiday period’ in the conventional privately agreed arrangements or Court Order sense. Thus arrangements or orders that define ‘term time’ and ‘holiday periods’ will mean this is still ‘term-time’ until the next routine School holiday break commences.
The approach parents should therefore take is that the normal arrangements for the children in term time should apply, unless this will involve more frequent travel for the children (for example, for what normally would be tea-time after school time spent with a parent) parents should consider trying to agree to something different, and for any “missed” time to be added elsewhere, perhaps to a weekend if practical.
Reaching an agreement
What if you cannot reach an agreement?
The President of the Family Division has clarified that if parents cannot reach an agreement, but a parent is sufficiently concerned that complying with the child arrangements order would be against the public health advice, then the parent can exercise their parental responsibility and vary the arrangement to one that the parent considers safe.
If the other co-parent objects to these actions and later makes an application to the court in connection with the non-agreed changes and to enforce an existing order, we expect the court to approach these cases by looking at whether each parent acted reasonably and sensibly at the time, in light of the prevailing official advice alongside any evidence about the child or family’s individual circumstances.
If parents need assistance in reaching an agreement, they can take advice from a specialist Family Law solicitor and consider remote mediation. A court application at this time should be a last resort, particularly given the difficulties the court is facing in dealing with existing applications remotely.
Can we help?
We hope that the information above will be of help to you and your family. We know every family situation is unique and we cannot possibly have covered everything that might apply to you and your family in this article.
If we can help you with your family situation in any way, or you are an extended family member who is also affected by the arrangements, please contact the specialist team of Family Solicitors for advice here at Lodders by email;
Vivienne Middleton, Senior Associate Solicitor– email@example.com
Baldish Khatkar, Senior Associate Solicitor– firstname.lastname@example.org
Christine Williams, Associate Solicitor – email@example.com
Amy Parker, Solicitor firstname.lastname@example.org
Alternatively, you can contact the team by phone on 0121 200 0890. Although our team is working remotely, we can assure you we will respond to your queries and help you.