The Coronavirus pandemic has brought new challenges for co-parents and separated parents.
In this new blog (published 1st May 2020), Silk family lawyer Nia Jameson shares her advice on managing shared childcare responsibilities, including Family Court Order compliance and changes.
A few weeks have passed since lockdown began and our guidance has changed on a regular basis, in line with the situation. We are all now familiar with the government’s ‘stay at home’ and social distancing rules. But there has been some confusion around the movement of children in relation to “essential travel”.
Can children of separated parents travel between households?
The guidance is now also clearer on the movement of children under the age of 18 between separated parents. Where children see both parents, there may be a child arrangements order in place or parents might have agreed these arrangements informally. Guidance issued alongside the stay-at-home rules on 23 March 2020 confirmed that children can move between parents’ homes and existing shared parenting arrangements can continue.
Shortly afterwards, in light of understandable parental concerns about children moving between homes and coming into contact with another family, The President of the Family Court, Sir Andrew McFarlane, issued a further statement. He said that while children can move between homes it does not mean that they must, and that parents must make a “sensible assessment of the circumstances, including the child’s present health and the presence of recognised vulnerable individuals in one household or the other”.
The statement emphasises the importance of communication between parents and confirms that “even if some parents think it is safe for contact to take place, it might be entirely reasonable for the other parent to be genuinely worried about this”.
Can a Child Arrangements Order be changed as a result of Coronavirus guidance?
Parents may agree to exercise their parental responsibility to temporarily vary a child arrangements order. The guidance suggests that it would be sensible to detail any variation in a note or email. This will ensure that both parents are clear on the remit of the variation, the timeframe for it and when the variation should be reviewed.
Where parents do not agree that a variation to the order is appropriate, however, a unilateral change made by one parent alone would be considered a breach of the order.
Sir Andrew McFarlane issued further updated advice on Tuesday 21 April warning parents against taking “cynical and opportunistic” measures to stop the other parent from seeing their child. He warns they could face later court action if that was found to be the case, so parents should not assume they can act unilaterally without consequence.
Making alternative child arrangements
Parents should speak to each other regarding any proposed changes as soon as possible. It may be helpful to share with the other parent or carer any relevant advice received, for example from a medical professional, to keep things open and transparent.
The President confirms that the spirit of the order should be preserved if it cannot be physically carried out. For example, alternative arrangements to speak with the children remotely should also be made.
If arrangements are varied, the guidance suggests there is an expectation that alternative arrangements are established. These should be in accordance with the spirit and terms of the child arrangements order (or informal agreement). For example arranging for children to speak to the other parent or carer remotely, and ensuring they can spend time with the child(ren) at an appropriate point in the future.
The court would expect to see evidence of this if they were to become involved at a later stage.
Summary of the family court guidance
It is clear that these are not easy circumstances to navigate, and there is no ‘one size fits all’ in terms of the ‘right’ decision for you and your children.
Broadly speaking, if it is possible for contact to safely continue, then it should do. This is permitted as an exception to the stay-at-home guidance.
It is important that children experience some level of consistency during this unsettling time, as long as it is safe.
The guidance is exactly that: to guide us. If any action taken is brought to the court’s attention at a later stage, it will be viewed in light of your specific circumstances and whether any variation requested or made was still reasonable and child focused.
If you are considering varying the terms of your Child Arrangement Orders and the other parent has not or does not agree, you should seek specialist legal advice to understand the implications of what you are suggesting. Likewise, if your child(ren)’s other parent has made changes to your agreement without your written consent, you should speak to a family lawyer to understand your legal position.
Communication tips for separated or co-parents
Good communication is key. Use whatever works best between you and your co-parent, whether that be telephone, text or email.
- Parents should communicate directly, where possible. Minimise the children’s involvement in your communications. Avoid passing messages through the children. Try and communicate, at the very least, where an issue relates to the children themselves i.e. whether they are struggling with any particular aspects of lockdown (anxiety, missing peers), where work has been provided by the school that they should be supported in doing in order to maintain structure to the day, and any tips on what has worked/not worked for you.
- Make alternative arrangements for children to speak to both parents. Where children are not spending time with the other parent as usual, arrange an alternative as soon as it is safe to do so and ensure access to Skype, FaceTime etc, or just a straightforward telephone call.
- Talk to your children about the situation and explain any changes. Give them as much notice as possible about what is going to happen, and when; how pick up’s and drop offs are going to be managed. A united front between parents (even where it is not behind closed doors) will limit the impact upon the children of any upheaval.
- Communicate any concerns with reference to current guidance. If you have concerns about the other parent’s compliance with the government guidance, communicate this to them and make specific reference to the guidance. It may be that your concerns can be dealt with through reassurance of the measures the other parent has in place. Be prepared to reciprocate and provide those same assurances.
If you have any questions relating to the issues discussed in this blog, or you believe your child’s other parent is in breach of a Child Arrangements Order, you can call me on 01748 900693 or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Main photo courtesy of Caleb Woods on Unsplash.