The Covid-19 lockdown restrictions instructing individuals and children to stay at home has had a significant impact on families, especially for separated parents with child arrangement orders. The governments guidance issued alongside the Stay at Home Rules deals specifically with child contact arrangements and states that children under age of 18 can be moved between their parents’ home after a sensible discussion, an assessment that the children are not being put at risk and “both households are healthy”.
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 boundaries, stability and routine, which will need to be set and shared between households so children can be scaffolded between homes smoothly.
Parents will need to be flexible as possible with child arrangements and communicate with one about their worries. Parents should continue to talk with each other and check in with the other household and see if children are regressing or if they are displaying signs of anxiety. Everyone is in a heightened state of anxiety, which will impact upon communication. Children’s anxiety is fairly manageable if parents can manage their anxieties. Separated couples exploiting the Covid-19 lockdown to stop the other parent from spending time with the child could face court action. The courts will regard this as wrong.
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, home schooling, what time are the children to be put to bed and woken up in the morning and to be dressed, 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. 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 states parental responsibility for a child who is subject of a child arrangements order made by Family Court rests with child’s parents and not with the court. 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 video calls, Skype, Zoom or other video connection or, if that is not possible, by telephone. Regular video calls can also manage a child’s anxiety and reassure children that their parents love them. If one parent is missing out on time with the children, consider agreeing additional holiday time later in the year.
Facilitating Remote contact during the lockdown is a necessity to keep contact going. A child can acclimatize to remote, contact which supports face to face contact, grows contact naturally and builds a more fluid relationship between parent and child.
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.
Please contact us on 0121 726 9116 and speak to our Family Solicitor Nirmal Phull. Confidential telephone and video conferencing is available.