In this article, we explain how the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and current lockdown will affect separated parents who want to ensure that they continue to have regular contact with their children.
Initially, it was unclear whether a child moving between parents' houses would be included as an authorised purpose. However, the Government has updated its guidance to confirm that children under 18 can be moved between their parents' houses. Michael Gove also confirmed this on Twitter after giving an unclear message on television.
As such, providing that no-one in either household is showing symptoms then child arrangements should continue as normal and parents are permitted to travel between each other's houses to facilitate this.
The terms of your Child Arrangement Order will still apply and should be complied with unless this presents a risk to the child or another person.
Child Arrangement Orders (and other agreements made between parents) tend to set out the arrangements during term time and then separate arrangements for school holidays. However, the situation we find ourselves in now fits into neither of those categories.
It will be up to the parents to decide together, how the children will spend their time whilst the schools are closed. These are not school holidays as such and it is likely that many children will still have school work to complete. Therefore, a good structure and routine will be important to children during this unsettling time. On this basis, parents may decide that their existing term-time arrangements should continue to ensure stability for the children.
Alternatively, some parents will decide that their holiday contact arrangements are more suitable whilst their children are at home, or they will agree different arrangements all together. This may be a practical decision as to how the children's time will be spent during this time as one parent may be able to provide child care whilst the other parent is at work.
The Family Court has emphasised that parents should communicate their concerns openly with one another during this difficult time. Where parents are in agreement as to the best course of action, they are free to vary the child arrangement if they feel it is necessary. The Court recommends that parents should keep a written record of any such agreement.
A common-sense approach must prevail. Clearly, it would not be in a child's interests to spend time with a parent who has developed symptoms.
In addition, a child who is showing symptoms should not be expected to travel to another parent's house and potentially spread the virus further. Health must come first during this pandemic.
Similarly, if your child needs to self-isolate because they are classed as a vulnerable person, then parents will be expected to be flexible in this regard. Clearly, a child's health should take priority in this situation, despite the fact that could mean that parents go many weeks, or months, without any physical contact. That is not to say that indirect contact cannot continue.
It is in the child's best interest to have contact with both parents unless there is evidence to the contrary. In the modern world we live in, there are a whole host of ways that parents and children can stay in contact. This includes Skype, Facetime, Whatsapp video and other video calling software. As well as telephone calls, emails, text messages and use of other messaging apps (if appropriate to the child's age).
Ultimately, parents will know themselves what is in the best interests of their individual children and how they can best help their children through these uncertain times.
The Family Court's guidance reminds parents that they have parental responsibility for their children, not the Court. It goes on to state that if parents are unable to agree arrangements, one parent can vary the order unilaterally if they are sufficiently concerned that complying with the Child Arrangement Order goes against government health advice. This might be the case for example if a parent considers their child is vulnerable due to a health condition. The Court advises that if these decisions are challenged in the Family Court arena, the Court will look at whether the parent acted "reasonably and sensibly" in light of official advice and rules. They will also consider the specific circumstances of the child and family.
However, the Court emphasises that: "The key message should be that, 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."
It is hoped that parents will be able to work through these difficult times themselves but if agreements cannot be reached, it will be necessary to apply to the Court to decide such matters.
Please also see the Cafcass guidance which provides further information for parents