Many separated parents are worried about how to manage their children’s shared care arrangements during a time when we are all being urged to maintain social distancing and stay at home. Unsurprisingly, separated parents are going to have to work harder than ever to try and effectively co-parent their children so that the children maintain a close relationship and spend time with both parents. Normal contact routines should be followed where possible but there will undoubtedly need to be greater flexibility with parents trying to juggle working from home and home schooling the children. Co-parenting can be difficult enough at the best of times and these are unprecedented times.
The government has advised that children under the age of 18 can be moved between their parent’s homes where their parents are separated but there has been confusion about this and issues arising. Having initally said that children would not be able to move, Michael Gove appeared on the Today programme to clarify that in fact children of parents who were separated, if they were under 18, would be able to visit both parents under the government’s rules for social distancing.
Helpfully, the President of the Family Division has issued guidance in relation to the compliance with family court child arrangement orders (CAO). It confirms that children under 18 are able to be moved between their parents’ homes but a parent must ensure that a child is not displaying any symptoms of the coronavirus before handing them over to the other parent.
The guidance states that the best way to deal in the current difficult circumstances is for parents to communicate with one another, particularly about finding practical solutions for sharing arrangements. Equally, parents should be transparent with each other in relation to their worries or concerns about their own or the health of other family members around them in the current circumstances.
The guidance follows that where parents believe that changes ought to be made to a CAO, these can be effective provided that the parents are acting in agreement and this is somehow recorded in writing i.e. in an email or text message. Crucially, if a CAO is amended whereby a child does not spend as much as time as set out in the CAO, then the courts will expect alternative arrangements to be made to ensure that regular contact between the child and their other parent is maintained remotely i.e. via telephone/skype/facetime etc. The President stresses that where restrictions lead to the variation of a court order, the spirit of the order should never be comprised, by ensuring that alternative arrangements are always made for the child to maintain contact with the other parent.
Communication is key and where it is difficult mediation services are still likely to be able to help with online mediation sessions. Family lawyers will also be able to help negotiate arrangements. In extreme cases it may also be possible to make an application to the court. In cases where there is a Court order, the order should be followed unless that is impossible or a different arrangement is agreed.
Of course, if a child or someone in the household falls ill then normal isolation rules should apply and parents will need to respect this. What parents should not do is use lockdown as an excuse to be difficult about the time that a child would normally spend with the other parent.
In these incredibly difficult and uncertain circumstances we are able to advise and guide you. If you wish to speak to a solicitor for advice on your own circumstances, then feel free to contact me directly.