Child Arrangements and Coronavirus. What Should I Do?
With the spread of the Coronavirus and government’s recent decision to close schools to all children other than to those of key workers, many separated parents are understandably confused and worried about childcare arrangements and the risk of illness. The most important thing is keep open good lines of communication between both parents and to remain focused on the best interests of the children.
Shared parenting during the outbreak
If you, your child or someone else in your house is self-isolating because they are exhibiting symptoms of the Coronavirus or have been in contact with someone who has, then you should not be delivering your child to contact with the other parent. Likewise, if the other parent is self-isolating then they should agree to temporarily halt direct contact. If the other parent has the child and someone in that house is self-isolating or exhibiting symptoms, then you should not push to have direct contact with the children until the governments recommended 14-day self-isolation period has ended and the risk of transmission is reduced. It is in all children’s best interest’s not to be exposed to the virus or to have parents who are avoidably ill. Although it is not clear when the current restrictions will end, they are temporary. Judges and the Courts will expect that, when life returns to normal, so should child arrangements.
With schools closed and many people working from home, there are likely to be disruptions to the day to day logistics of child arrangements. Public transport such as buses and trains should also be avoided wherever possible. If this means that the way you usually carry out contract handovers is disrupted, then you should attempt to discuss alternatives with the other parent. This could mean that you collect you child for contact when usually the other parent would deliver them, or visa versa. To limit the disruption to children’s routine, if child arrangements are structured around school opening hours, you should try to observe these as much as possible. You should also consider whether indirect contact such as telephone or video calls can take the place of direct contact where appropriate.
There has been little clear guidance from the government on how educational arrangements will continue now that schools have been shut and exams cancelled. We all expect to hear more from the government soon but in the meantime, you may wish to discuss with the other parent arrangements for home-schooling or activities to keep children occupied.
Making changes to your existing Child Arrangements Order
If you have a Child Arrangements Order in place then in usual circumstances, the courts expect you to stick to them, as long as there is no reason why you can’t. However, no Judge made a child arrangements order expecting the current situation. If the children’s safety or health is threatened or the previous arrangements are now unworkable, then the Court will accept that there will be deviations from the Order. You may be able to reach an agreement with the other parent regarding any changes to the Child Arrangements Order, for example, to modify handover times in light of school closures. If such an agreement is reached, the Courts are not going to chastise either parent for diverging from the terms of the Order. However, you should consider putting any new agreement into writing and jointly signing with the other parent. This should help to make sure that both parties are clear on the changes that have been agreed and prevent disputes in the future. If an agreement results in longer or shorter contact sessions, then you should consider noting in any written agreement that these arrangements are intended to be temporary until the threat from the Coronavirus has abated.
If agreement on changes can't be reached
If you cannot agree necessary changes to a court order, then it is still possible to make an application to vary the Child Arrangements Order that is in place. The Courts are remaining open for now. However, they are pushing to hear shorter and less urgent cases via video link or to deal with them on paper. You must therefore ensure that you are clear in the changes that you are seeking to the Order and the reasons why. Such clarity may assist in obtaining a favourable result in the unusual circumstances that hearings are being heard.
Is your ex partner putting your children at risk?
If you are concerned that the other parent is not properly observing the recommendations about social distancing and self-isolation and you are concerned that this is putting the children at risk, you need to carefully consider your position. You should try to discuss you concerns with the other parent, so that you both have an understanding of the other’s approach to virus control. There is a lot of confusion and uncertainty regarding how to properly react to the virus and it may be that you need to communicate to agree a common approach. Doing so should also help to reassure the children about the situation and that they are as safe as possible. Ultimately, if the other parent does not change their behaviour and you feel that the children are being put at risk then you need to consider whether to temporarily halt contact and to make an application to vary the Child Arrangements Order. However, you should be very careful in this approach. You must satisfy the Judge that you concern is genuine, and that the other parent’s behaviour is insufficient. Where possible you should try to communicate your concerns and suggestions to the other parent before making an application. At the very least, this can support you position within the application.
Is your ex partner preventing you from seeing your children?
If the other parent is not releasing the children to you because they have concerns abut coronavirus, then you need to carefully asses the situation. Are they self-isolating or are they concerned that you may have been exposed to the virus? The Court is likely to support contact being temporarily halted due to self-isolation. Is the other parent questioning your social distancing & virus control measures? If so, you need to assess whether the steps that you have taken are in line with recommendations. However, as a parent of the child you are expected to be able to take appropriate decisions regarding your and the children’s health when they are having contact with you. it is not for the other parent to dictate a regime and make contact dependant on whether their regime is being followed.
There is, unfortunately, little certainty at the moment and no-one knows how long restrictions will continue for. It is important that, despite the constraints, parental contact continues as much as possible. If possible, you should try to exercise sympathy and understanding. There are few solid answers right now and everyone is worried. Communication between both parents is always advisable but never more so now.
If you do have concerns, one of the Family Team at Watson Thomas Solicitors will be more than happy to discuss these with you and provide advice on your situation.
At Watson Thomas our staff can work from home and access all systems so even if all are required to self-isolate this will not affect the day-to-day running of your case. We can also hold appointments via telephone and video link as needs be to ensure that your service is not interrupted.