The government’s decision on Monday to impose a minimum 3 week lockdown in the UK for people to stay at home with restricted movement will have a huge impact on families and especially for those parents with child arrangement orders. The governments full guidance on staying at home and away from others has been amended to allow parents who do not live in the same household, and children under 18 to be moved between their parents’ homes during the lockdown. If children are able to move safely between their respective parents’ homes, try and agree what is and is not appropriate during their time with the children. For example, are both parents in agreement that it is not appropriate to take children to the supermarket or to a local park, or is that something both parents would feel comfortable with if appropriate supervision is in place.
These are difficult times and arrangements in nearly every aspect of life are changing fast. This will include living and contact arrangements for the children of separated parents. Children require stability and routine and we have an unprecedented scenario that no doubt will create further irreparable damage to families. Parents will need to be flexible as possible with child arrangements and communicate with one about their worries. If one parent is missing out on time with the children, consider agreeing additional holiday time later in the year. The schools have also closed and most school work is online, but if it is not, and children still moving safely between homes, parents need to make sure children have the resources and books they need.
The guidance given by the President of the Family Division on compliance with child arrangement orders in this crisis states where parents, acting in agreement, exercise their parental responsibility to conclude that the arrangements set out in a child arrangement order should be temporarily varied they are free to do so. It would be sensible for each parent to record such an agreement in a note, email or text message sent to each other.
Where parents do not agree to vary the arrangements set out in a child arrangements order, but one parent is sufficiently concerned that complying with the child arrangements would be against current government advice, then that parent may exercise their parental responsibility and vary the arrangement to one that they consider to be safe. If, after the event, the actions of a parent acting on their own in this way are questioned by the other parent in the Family Court, the court is likely to look to see whether each parent acted reasonably and sensibly in the light of the official advice and the Stay at Home Rules in place at that time, together with any specific evidence relating to the child or family.
Where, either as a result of parental agreement or as a result of one parent on their own varying the arrangements, a child does not get to spend time with the other parent as set down in the child arrangements, the courts will expect alternative arrangements to be made to establish and maintain regular contact between the child and the other parent within the Stay at Home Rules, for example remotely by FaceTime, WhatsApp Face-Time, Skype, Zoom or other video connection or, if that is not possible, by telephone.
If you cannot agree changes to arrangements, consider an urgent webcam meeting with a mediator or as a last resort if an agreement cannot be reached, an application to the court can be made. The Court are dealing with hearings remotely. Specialist legal advice should be obtained before making any application.