The Coronavirus pandemic has imposed major restrictions upon our movements. The UK is now in ‘lockdown’, with most people being restricted to their own homes, save for certain limited purposes. Even when we do leave our homes, we must adopt ‘social distancing’, keeping at least two metres away from anyone not from our own household.
But what if you are separated from the other parent of your children? We already know that in such cases children under 18 can be moved between their parents’ homes, but how exactly might the lockdown affect your child arrangements?
Child arrangements come in many forms, and exactly what type of arrangement you have will dictate how it will be affected. We have therefore divided child arrangements into five broad categories, as set out below.
However, before we look at those categories, here are three basic principles, as set out in guidance published last week by the President of the Family Division Sir Andrew McFarlane:
1. The decision whether a child is to move between parental homes is for the child’s parents to make after a 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 the other.
2. Where parents do not agree to vary the arrangements set out in a child arrangements order, but one parent is sufficiently concerned that complying with the arrangements would be against current public health advice, then that parent may vary the arrangement to one that they consider to be safe.
3. Where Coronavirus restrictions cause the letter of a court order to be varied, the spirit of the order should nevertheless be delivered by making safe alternative arrangements for the child, for example remote contact via telephone or Skype.
Shared care, including holiday arrangements
This is where your child spends substantial amounts of their time with each parent.
Obviously, any change in such arrangements could have a significant effect upon the child, and should therefore be considered very carefully. Try to agree arrangements with the other parent, and if you have to act unilaterally then bear in mind that you may ultimately have to explain your actions to the Family Court.
Many child arrangements orders include provision for the child to spend longer periods of time with a parent during school holidays. However, schools are of course now closed, and there are therefore no school holidays. In such circumstances it may be best to suspend school holiday arrangements.
This is where the child spends most of their time with one parent but has overnight, or ‘staying’, contact with the other parent, for example one or two nights a week.
For the purposes of Coronavirus, the situation here is really very similar to shared care, and the same principles therefore apply.
This is where the contact takes place during the daytime only.
If the visiting contact involves going to the other parent’s home, then again similar principles apply to those above, although any alteration in the arrangements may not have such serious implications for the child.
However, some visiting contact takes place outside the other parent’s home, for example taking the child to the park, or to some other public place. Obviously, the present restrictions upon movement may affect those arrangements.
Supervised contact, including at a contact centre
Sometimes contact has to be supervised by a third party, for example when it takes place at a contact centre. Obviously, this may not currently be possible, if the supervisor is not available. The National Association of Child Contact Centres reports that the Coronavirus outbreak has had an impact on the availability of some but not all child contact centres. For more information, see here.
Contact need not of course be direct between parent and child. It can be indirect, for example by telephone, Skype, email, messaging or plain old letters and cards.
Here of course there is some good news: indirect contact is virtually unaffected by the Coronavirus. In fact, it should be encouraged, especially where direct contact is stopped or restricted.
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Obviously, the above just sets out some general principles and guidance. For further advice in relation to your own circumstances, you should consult an expert family lawyer. Family Law Café can put you in touch with an expert – call us on 020 3904 0506, or click the ‘Sign up’ button at the top of the page, and fill in the form.
You can read the President’s guidance here.
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