News reports suggest that some separated parents are taking advantage of the coronavirus pandemic to prevent the other parent from having contact with their children. Sarah Evans, Partner in Coodes Solicitors’ Family team, outlines the legal issues.
Recent headlines indicate that some separated parents are exploiting the COVID-19 social distancing measures as a means of preventing the other parent from seeing the children. Head of the family courts Sir Andrew McFarlane has warned that parents who take advantage of the lockdown in this way could face legal action.
Here at Coodes we are receiving a number of enquiries about child contact arrangements during the lockdown. Some people are unclear on the official advice and whether or not it is acceptable or advisable to change the family’s usual arrangements in light of social distancing measures.
What are child contact arrangements?
When a couple separates one of the biggest challenges is often agreeing who the children should live with. There is then the important consideration of how much time they spend with the other parent and when they can see extended family, including grandparents. Families generally put in place arrangements for children to stay with each parent on certain days each week. A solicitor can make these arrangements legally binding. This is known as a Child Arrangements Order.
If the parents are unmarried, the father may not have parental responsibility, which can make the situation more complex. In this case, he should get legal advice to ascertain his rights and responsibilities.
What is the advice on child contact during the lockdown?
The official advice to separated or divorced parents is that children under 18 can move between their parents’ homes if they are not deemed to be at risk. That means that in most cases, children’s living and contact arrangements can remain the same. Maintaining the usual schedule will help establish some sense of routine and normality for children at an uncertain time.
However, if anyone in the family contracts COVID-19 or displays symptoms, these arrangements will need to temporarily change. This will involve children having to self-isolate with one parent for the period of time advised by the Government. While a child is unable to see a parent, it is important to find other ways of having regular contact. I wrote more about this in my previous blog.
The official guidance also states that some parents may need to change their usual arrangements to keep family members as safe as possible during the pandemic. This could be because the child or another member of their household is medically vulnerable, because the usual arrangements would result in significant periods of non-essential travel or one of the parents works in a high risk area. For example, many parents who work in the frontline of the NHS are making the difficult decision to temporarily forgo direct contact with their children at this time. These are all sensible and proportionate reasons why contact arrangements may need to change. It will, however, not be reasonable or sensible to stop contact simply as a result of the pandemic. The guidance is quite clear that, in the absence of appropriate reasons, the child’s arrangements ought to continue as normal.
Complying with Child Arrangements Orders during the pandemic
Separated parents who have not been able to agree on who the children should live with may have a Child Arrangements Order in place. These are legally binding orders, set out by the family courts, to agree which parent the child should live with and when he or she should see the other parent.
During the pandemic, many parents are asking whether they still need to meet the requirements of their Child Arrangements Order. The Courts and Tribunals Judiciary has offered some advice on this.
The advice states: “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.”
The organisation makes it clear that parents should, if at all possible, communicate between themselves and agree a sensible solution that is right for their family.
While some parents are seeking to change arrangements because they are, understandably, concerned about their family’s safety, others are clearly seeking to manipulate the situation to prevent their former spouse or partner from having contact with the children. It is clear from the guidance issued that the family courts will take a dim view of anyone who exploits the lockdown to gain an advantage over the other parent.
If you are affected by any of these issues and need legal advice, please contact the Family team: Family@coodes.co.uk