The national emergency as a result of Covid-19 has been unprecedented. Consequently, for parents it has been difficult to manage and maintain child arrangements due to the significant lockdown restrictions. When the Government issued advice that movement between houses was prohibited, parents of children who split their time between two different households were obviously concerned. On 23 March 2020 the Government issued guidance that children under the age of 18 can move between their separated parents’ homes. However, the President of the Family Division made clear that the guidance does not mean that movement between houses must happen. Therefore, while movement between homes was not encouraged, it would be for parents to decide whether it would be safe for a child to do so. We’ve come up with the following tips to help parents manage child arrangements during this difficult time:
1. Consider the risk in your specific circumstances
As above, you should consider the risks of your child(ren) moving between homes. For example, if you/your children would have to take public transport in order to relocate to the other parent’s home it may not be sensible for them to do so, particularly if this is on a frequent basis. If you are able to travel to and from each house by car this would be a far safer way to travel. Other factors you may want to consider include whether either parent is a key worker, which increases the risk of infection and therefore the risk to the child(ren), or whether a member of the family has any underlying health condition that places them at a higher risk. Also, if a parent has shown symptoms and needs to self-isolate, direct contact will have to be suspended during that quarantine period. You may decide to reduce the amount of contact thereby limiting the movement between houses, or take a car to and from rather than public transport. When considering all of these factors you need to focus on what is in the best interests for your children and ultimately it will be for you and the other parent to decide.
As it is ultimately yours and the other parents’ decision, it is important that you both communicate and, if possible, come to an agreement about what is in the best interests of the child(ren). If an agreement is reached, by virtue of your parental responsibility, you are able to vary the child arrangements on an interim basis. Any agreement that you do reach or any discussion you have, you should try to have in writing. We are aware that there are circumstances where communicating directly with the other parent may not be possible or appropriate. In these circumstances, it may be beneficial to ask a family member or friend to act as a mediator.
3. If no agreement can be reached, vary the arrangements based on the best interests of the child(ren)
We appreciate that this is a time of increased anxieties for everyone and stress can exacerbate the potential for disagreement. If it is clear that you cannot reach an agreement with the other parent, you may wish to unilaterally exercise your parental responsibility to temporarily vary the child arrangements for the best interests of your child(ren). It is possible that after this the other parent may apply to court to enforcement of the Child Arrangements Order. Alternatively, if you consider that the other parent has incorrectly suspended contact arrangements, you may wish to apply to enforce the child arrangements. Either way, we recommend that you approach a solicitor to obtain advice. The Family Court will decide whether the child arrangements should be varied by considering what is in the child(ren)’s best interests. The parent who has breached the child arrangements will be given an opportunity to explain why and the court will consider whether their actions are reasonable in light of the current Government guidance.
4. Make alternative arrangements
Where child arrangements are varied it is important that alternative arrangements are made so that the child(ren) continues to have contact with both parents. For example, organising video calls through Skype, Zoom or Facetime is a way that a contact can continue remotely. If you do not want the other parent to have your contact details, we would recommend using Zoom as this does not provide the other party with your email address or phone number and instead uses a meeting link. If one parent has having supervised contact, you may wish to consider whether it is safe for them to continue having contact in their home. If not, you may organise for them to have video contact with a third party present on the call. The court will expect for alternative arrangements to have been made and it is important for your child(ren) to have some continuity during this period of disruption.
As always, the interests of your children need to be at the forefront of your mind during any decision making. You will have to consider and balance the benefits of your child(ren) continuing to have contact with the other parent compared to any associated risk. If you seek any advice on any child matter, please do not hesitate to get in contact with us on 020 7608 1227.