It is understandable that separated parents who have a Child Arrangements Order in place from the Family Courts, are currently concerned about how to implement the terms of the Court Order safely.
On March 23rd 2020, the UK government announced nationwide policies for everybody to remain in isolation within their own homes as much as possible, due to the outbreak of Coronavirus. A few exceptions were granted for the need of daily exercise, to shop for essentials items, attend medical appointments or to attend work for those who cannot work from home. Save for those exceptions, the general public have been advised to remain indoors and not to even visit family members or friends.
The government guidelines have made it clear that parents who do not live in the same household and who have children under the age of 18, are able to travel for the sake of facilitating time being spent between the child(ren) and the non resident parent. This is an exception to the mandatory rule to stay at home, but it does not mean a child must be moved between parental homes.
It is important to remember that the Courts are not responsible for parenting or ensuring the daily safety of a child. This is the ultimate duty of the parents and those who hold parental responsibility. The parents of a child who hold parental responsibility are always ultimately duty bound to ensure the safety and wellbeing of the child. This means that despite any Court Orders that may be in place, it is the parent’s responsibility to act reasonably and to assess what is in their child’s best interests.
The country is facing a wide scale unprecedented health crisis. The only concern the Family Courts have at this time is to ensure that children are safe within their homes and that vulnerable children are being taken care of. For the majority of cases, it now falls to the parents themselves to act sensibly and appropriately in discussing arrangements between themselves to find the best way forward for their child.
If a child is generally well and healthy and their parents live relatively near to one another, it may be suitable to continue to facilitate contact arrangements as per usual. No doubt extra precautions should be taken to avoid reliance on public transport and to limit travel and exposure externally as much as possible. However, if a child suffers from any underlying medical conditions or if either parent is deemed vulnerable and therefore at particular risk of contracting Covid-19, parents may need to be realistic and make alternative arrangements to ensure the safety of the child and the health and safety of the parents themselves, as well as any others that may share their household. It may be the case that usual direct contact should be substituted for indirect contact for the current time by way of zoom/skype/facetime/phone calls etc. This may not be ideal but in the interests of general public health and safety, including the safety of a child, this may be the most sensible way forward on a temporary basis.
The best way for parents to deal with these difficult times is to communicate with one another and focus on what is best for the child, and not to take advantage of the circumstances. Stopping contact between a child and their parent or refusing to return a child to their resident parent, without real and justified cause, could result in significant emotional harm being cause to the child. Before making any decisions, it is advisable to talk between yourselves as the parents and try to reach an agreement about how to move forward with arrangements taking the exposure of risk of infection into consideration. If in doubt, seek legal advice before making any decisions.
During this time of crisis, it is suitable and possible to mutually agree to vary the terms of any Court Order from the Family Courts in relation to contact taking place. The Court is unlikely to penalize a parent for acting reasonably and agreeing alternative arrangements for a child during this pandemic. However, if a parent is seen to be manipulating the circumstances to take advantage of the current state of affairs, to refuse to return a child or to refuse to engage in contact of any form, whether directly or indirectly, this is a matter which can be raised before the Court to be addressed and such unconscionable behavior from a parent would not be taken lightly by the Courts. It is important to remember that at a time like this, the Family Court is keen to see parents working together in an amicable manner, even if this means the letter of the law through a previous Court Order is not able to be maintained for the current time; as long as the spirit of the Court Order is still being actioned.
It is unlikely that there will be many cases where all forms of contact should be stopped completely, even during the current lockdown period that the nation is facing, alternative arrangements for substituted contact can always take place and should be taking place as much as possible.
If you feel that you have safety concerns for your child, the other parent is not acting reasonably or contact has ceased entirely, you are still able to seek legal advice and have matters addressed by the Court.
We remain open, and although most members of staff are working from home, we are able to assist you remotely, with your preferred method of communication, whether that be by telephone call, video calls or email, we continue to work from home just as we would in the office, due to our advanced IT systems. Please contact us on 0121 511 2233 should you require any legal advice, and ask to speak to one of our Family Panel and Children Panel Accredited Solicitors.
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