We have received many enquiries from parents who are concerned about their child contact arrangements in the current COVID-19 pandemic. Louise Allard and Angela Medin answer some of the most common questions below.
Please be aware that as the situation changes so does the guidance.
This blog was correct at the time of writing, but it is important to keep up to date with the current Government guidance and make sure you are complying with it.
If I share care of my children can they move between houses during the stay at home campaign?
The short answer is yes. We have all been asked to stay at home (subject to certain exceptions) but where parents do not live in the same household, children under the age of 18 can be moved between their parents’ homes. Although this provides an exception to the ‘Stay at Home Rules’, it does not oblige you to move your children between homes.
If I share care of my children, do they have to move between homes?
The decision as to whether children should move between homes during the lockdown period is in the first instance a matter for their parents. You have to consider the child’s present health, the risk of infection and the presence of any recognised vulnerable individuals in either household. Communication with their other parent is key.
If you and your child’s other parent agree that current arrangements should be temporarily varied, you are free to do that.
If you do not agree, but one parent is concerned that continuing with current arrangements would be against current health advice, and therefore unsafe, then the parent can vary the arrangement to one they feel is safe. Before making any changes parents should consider the detailed guidance at judiciary.co.uk.
Remember that if a child is unable to have direct contact with a parent during this time, they are likely to worry about that parent. It is therefore important to maintain or establish indirect contact, such as video calls or phone calls, where possible.
If I lose out on time with my child now can I claim it back when this is over?
This is possible but there is no guarantee. If you make interim arrangements in relation to contact to ensure that all parties remain safe and comply with Government guidance, you can also voluntarily agree for the parent who has lost time with a child to make this time up when life goes back to ‘normal’. However, you should bear in mind that there is no certainty as to when this might be and any decisions made now and in the future will have to be the right decision for the child at the time.
What rights do I have if my child’s other parent is behaving unreasonably – not letting me have video calls with my child, listening in or anything else?
There has been clear guidance that where the Coronavirus restrictions mean that the usual arrangement cannot be followed the spirit of the arrangement should be followed. With this in mind, it will be difficult for a parent to justify failing to facilitate any form of contact between the child and their other parent, such as video and telephone calling.
If parents are unable to agree alternative arrangements, consider whether a family member or trusted friend might act as a mediator between you. Virtual mediation with a trained mediator can be a useful tool to help parents negotiate and agree how and when contact should take place. If an agreement cannot be reached by this method, parents may wish to consider instructing a specialist family solicitor to facilitate the discussion and find a solution.
Either parent can make an application to the Court for a Judge to determine the arrangements for contact, but this is a last resort. The Family Courts are currently under immense pressure with hearings set to be undertaken by video or telephone. There is therefore likely to be a delay in cases being heard and resolved.
If a parent unilaterally changes the arrangements for contact and this is later questioned by the other parent in the Family Court, the Court is likely to consider whether each parent acted reasonably and sensibly in the light of the official advice and the relevant Stay at Home Rules that were in place at that time. It is therefore important that neither parent uses the current circumstances as an opportunity to deprive the other parent of contact with their child.
What happens if one member of a household has Coronavirus or is in a vulnerable group, how does that affect child arrangements?
As per Government guidance, if a member of a household has Coronavirus symptoms including a new continuous cough and/or high temperature, they must stay at home for 14 days. All other household members who remain well must stay at home and not leave the house for 14 days.
Following this Government advice will inevitably lead to some children being unable to have direct contact with one of their parents for a period of time. It is in the best interests of the child that parents try to be understanding where these circumstances arise. If the child is physically unable to spend time with their other parent, arrangements should be made to ensure that they remain connected.
Is there a limit on how far children should travel between households and what is the safest way to travel?
There is no limit, but a common-sense approach should be taken. How far they should travel will in part depend on how they can safely get to their destination.
There is no specific guidance about the safest way to travel, but again common sense is key. To limit possible exposure to Coronavirus many sources suggest that you walk or drive your own vehicle if you can and avoid public transport if at all possible.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office issued advice on 17 March against all non-essential travel overseas. International travel is becoming very limited as air routes close, land borders close and new restrictions are put in place that prevent flights from leaving.
How can I be sure that my child’s other parent’s home is hygienic and safe?
As a first step speak to the other parent so you can explain and agree on what you consider to be a hygienic and safe environment for the child. You may wish to direct them to any Government guidance. It might help to ensure that you are both on the same page and that could provide reassurance to both parents that contact is safe.
If I am in the process of a divorce and making arrangements for my children, will this affect it?
Not necessarily as arrangements for children are often made on an interim basis. In this unprecedented global crisis any new arrangements will almost certainly have to be reviewed once the restrictions are lifted. If a court order is being made now, it can be noted in the order that arrangements have been agreed to reflect the current health crisis and should not necessarily determine the final arrangements.
Is there financial support for family legal cases available?
Unfortunately funding for family law cases is only available in very limited circumstances. In uncertain times such as these where many people have lost their jobs, it can be difficult to obtain specialist family law advice. If you are struggling but cannot obtain financial assistance, you can contact your local Citizens Advice Buraeux who may be able to advise and will also have the details of local organisations that can provide help and assistance.
If you need to instruct a Solicitor to assist you with urgent Child Arrangements issues, Louise Allard or Sabrina Bailey can be contacted directly.
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