Child Contact Arrangements During The Coronavirus Crisis.
Solicitor, Mediator and Collaborative Practitioner
31 March 2020
We are living in unprecedented circumstances. These are worrying and difficult times everyone. This includes children who will be feeling anxious for their family, friends and themselves, surrounded by a constant stream of bad news about the coronavirus crisis. Their worries are likely to be greater if their parents are living separate and apart. In these situations, it is important that the parents communicate with each other and work together to do what is best for their child or children, notwithstanding the difficulties which exist or have existed in their relationship.
Following the mantra that we must all, ‘’ Stay at home,’’ subject to limited exceptions, we have received guidance from the senior Family Judge in England, Sir Andrew McFarlane as to how the Government’s rules should be applied when dealing with the arrangements for the children of separated parents.
GENERAL: APPLYING TO ALL CASES OF CHILDREN OF SEPARATED PARENTS.
The parental responsibility (legal rights and duties of being a parent) remain with the parents and not the Court. The expectation is that parents will act sensibly and safely when making decisions about the arrangements for their child and deciding where and with whom the child will spend their time. Parents must abide by the Government’s, ‘’ Rules on Staying at Home and Away from Others,’’ ( known as, ‘the Stay at Home Rules’), as well as the advice about staying safe and reducing the spread of infection which has been issued and is updated by Public Health England and Public Health Wales.
The Stay at Home Rules make the general position clear: that it is no longer permitted for a person, and this will include a child, to be outside their home except for the limited exceptions.
The Government guidance issued alongside the Stay at Home Rules deals specifically with child contact arrangements and states:-
‘’ where parents do not live in the same household, children under 18 can be moved between their parents homes.’’
The senior Family Judge has explained that this is an exception to the Stay at Home Rules but it does not mean that children MUST be moved between homes. The decision whether a child is to move between parents’ homes is for the parents to make after sensible assessment of the circumstances, including the child’s present health, the risk of infection and the presence of any recognised vulnerable individuals in one household or another.
Sir Andrew Mcfarlane went on to say that generally, the best way to deal with these difficult issues is for the parents to communicate with one another about their worries, and what they think would be a good, practical solution. Even if some parents think it is safe for contact take place, it might be entirely reasonable for the other parent to be genuinely worried about this.
WHERE THERE IS AN EXISTING CHILD ARRANGEMENTS ORDER
WHERE THERE IS AN EXISTING CHILD ARRANGEMENTS ORDER
Where there is an existing child arrangements order, it is open to the parents, exercising their parental responsibility, to agree that the contact arrangements in the order are temporarily varied in such way as they may agree. If this happens, it is sensible for the parents to record the agreement in a note, email or text message sent to each other.
Where parents do not agree to vary the arrangements for contact set out in an existing child arrangements order and one parent is sufficiently concerned that complying with the order will be against the advice of Public Health England Public Health Wales, that parent may exercise their parental responsibility and vary the arrangements to those which they considered to be safe. If these actions are subsequently referred to the Court, the Court is likely to consider whether each parent acted reasonably and sensibly in the light of the official advice and the Stay at Home Rules in place at that time, together with any specific evidence relating to the child or the family.
The Senior Judge has also stated that where either as result of parental agreement, or, as result of one parent varying the arrangements in an order on their own, a child is not to spend time with the other parent as stipulated in the Order, the Court will expect alternative arrangements to be made to establish and maintain regular contact between the child and the other parent within the Stay at Home Rules : for example, by Face Time, WhatsApp Face Time, Skype, Zoom or other video platforms, but if these are not possible, by telephone
The key message is that where the coronavirus restrictions cause the terms of a Court Order to be varied, the spirit of the Order should nevertheless be delivered by making other safe arrangements for the child.
Notwithstanding the above advice, there may well be numerous situations where parents cannot agree the arrangements for a child or children to see the non-residential parent, either in accordance with informal arrangements which have taken place by consent until now, or, under the terms of an existing child arrangements order. Mediation can be a good way of talking through and resolving the issues with the assistance of a neutral mediator. Most mediators, including Sharon Blackstone and Wendy Ryle of this firm, are offering mediation services online during the coronavirus crisis. Alternatively, you may require advice about your particular situation : we can provide this online or over the telephone.
If we may be of help you in these difficult times, please contact us on 01737 753077 or at firstname.lastname@example.org