We are certainly going through difficult times at the moment, and I hope that you are well, and that the current coronavirus situation isn’t causing you too much stress. As a family lawyer, I have been asked about how the current rules about social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic might affect any current arrangements that are in place around contact with children.
On 23 March 2020 it was confirmed by Cabinet minister Michael Gove that children under the age of 18 will still be able to move between households to ensure they continue to see both parents. This doesn’t mean that they have to, if circumstances make this inadvisable or it goes against the advice given by Public Health England.
Parents must make sensible decisions about moving their children between homes, and work together where possible, taking into account the health of the child(ren), any risk of infection and whether there are recognised vulnerable individuals in either household.
The country is experiencing a Public Health crisis, and therefore the courts will expect parents to care for their children in a sensible and safe way, and to come to agreement about the arrangements during this time. Parents are expected to exercise their own parental responsibility and not use the court system to settle disagreements where possible.
I’ve compiled a list of questions about contact and children’s arrangements that might affect your family – if you have any further questions, please don’t hesitate to contact me at Gillbanks Family Law and I’ll do whatever I can to assist you.
My former partner won’t let me see the children because of coronavirus – what can I do?
Even during social distancing, it’s still important to maintain contact, and so any current court order must be complied with – although there are exceptions to this rule. Coronavirus restrictions mean that there will be some circumstances where arrangements set out in an agreement or a court order may need to be changed. In these cases, safe alternative arrangements for the child(ren) need to be made and if possible, another type of contact organised.
Your ex-partner should carry on making any children available for contact with you where possible, and if this is not an option, the court will still expect contact to take place using telephone, Zoom, Skype Facetime or similar.
If you believe that your ex-partner may be unreasonably withholding contact, your solicitor might be able to help – sometimes just a letter reminding them of their obligations can do the trick.
My child has symptoms of coronavirus – should I let contact go ahead?
This one is a more difficult question as the government hasn’t been specific about it, but the same rules should apply to anyone else in your household: advice is that if someone in your household is showing symptoms of COVID-19 they should self-isolate for seven days, and anyone living with them should self-isolate for 14 days.
In those circumstances, a child who has symptoms should not move between households for at least seven days if they are showing symptoms, and the parent they are with should self-isolate and not deliver or collect them from contact during the period of self-isolation. In the case of another household member, of they are displaying symptoms, your child should also self-isolate for 14 days.
As soon as the self-isolation period has elapsed it should be fine for contact to start again as normal but continue observing the two-metre distance rule between you and your ex-partner. It might also be a good idea to make your child available for contact a little longer than usual once contact starts again, just to avoid bad feeling. And don’t forget that there is also technology to help keep contact between parent and child if self-isolation is necessary.
My former partner is not home-schooling or caring for my child properly – can I do anything?
Keep the contact agreements as usual – but if you have a genuine concern about your child’s welfare or that basic needs are not being met while with your former partner, you may have grounds to suspend contact. This is a last resort, and if you feel it’s necessary to take this step, ensure that you give your ex-partner a reason for the suspension of contact along with an options for alternatives to physical contact. You also need to be aware that if you don’t comply with a court order, your former partner may have grounds to seek redress through the courts at a later date, so this is not an option to take lightly.
What can we do if face to face contact has to be temporarily suspended or if contact is usually supervised?
If you have agreed with your former partner to change the arrangements in a Child Arrangement Order, there is no reason to do anything other than keep to any new arrangements where possible. Courts do not need to be involved in any decision made between both of you at this point. At the same time, it would be sensible to keep a record any changes you’ve agreed to in writing, either as a text, message or email.
It’s still important to maintain relationships between children and their parents, but there may be situations where face to face contact isn’t possible. In these cases, try to organise some kind of virtual contact via Skype/Facetime or similar. Telephone contact is also an option. If possible, try to agree set days and times so that everyone knows when they will be able to keep in touch; children love routine too. It’s also a nice idea to encourage children to send emails, or perhaps even write letters and make cards – they can be sent electronically and little gestures like this will go a long way towards maintaining harmony in these difficult times.
My ex-partner is making it hard to agree the arrangements for our children during the coronavirus lock-down period, what can I do?
Bear in mind that even if one parent thinks it is safe for contact to take place, it could still be reasonable for the other parent to genuinely believe otherwise. Where parents can’t agree on any changes to a Child Arrangement Order, but one parent is worried that complying would be against current medical/government advice, then the concerned parent can vary the arrangement to one that they consider to be safe.
The other parent is free to question their actions after the event – they may ask the Family Courts to decide whether each parent acted reasonably and sensibly under the circumstances, and with reference to the Stay at Home Rules, taking into account any other specific evidence. If you can keep a written record of anything you have suggested, in your efforts to maintain the relationship, that will help.
Again, please don’t hesitate to contact Vanessa at Gillbanks Family Law if you need support of advice about current or future arrangements for children.