COVID-19 is causing increased tension for co-parents across the country, as they contend with child arrangements such as home-schooling whilst managing work issues and financial security. Co-parenting in most instances can be extremely difficult and stressful, but while social-distancing and self-isolating? Many couples will be finding it impossible.
Here are a few things you can address to help the situation:
(Please Note We Are Living Through A Fast Moving and Changing Situation – Please Do Follow The Links To Get The Latest Updates)
1) Know the rules and regulations
It can be confusing with rules constantly changing in this pandemic. But, it’s important to stay up to date with the latest advice. For instance, Michael Gove initially suggested children should remain with their current parent and not be moved to visit their other parent. Later that same morning he backtracked, clarifying that children under the age of 18 would be permitted to move between homes despite the lockdown. To be clear, at the time of writing, the government has confirmed that separated parents can drop off and pick up their children without breaching the new stay at home guidance.
However, as a result of the recent restrictions, contact centres across the country will now remain closed until further notice meaning facilitated handovers and contact sessions are not possible. If this is applicable to you, unfortunately, for the time being, this form of contact will have to stop.
2) Know your options and communicate
It’s natural as a parent in these unprecedented times to have anxiety around your childcare arrangements, especially where your child usually moves between two households. The non-resident parent may be scared that they may not get see their child and the resident parent might be worried they could either contract or pass on the virus if the children are moved between homes. Be honest and clear about your concerns with the other parent. It is likely that they will share those fears too.
Guidance from the President of the Family Division advises parents to communicate with each other to try and come to an agreement on whether any alternative arrangements are necessary. If there is already a CAO (Child Arrangements Order) in place, where possible parents should stick to this, or if both parties agree to vary it due to the current lockdown situation, that agreement should be recorded in writing.
What happens if you don’t agree? Under normal circumstances, if there is a CAO in place and the parties do not agree to vary it you would make a court application requesting a variation.
However, in light of current events, the President of the Family Division states “Where parents do not agree, then that parent may exercise their parental responsibility and vary the arrangement to one that they consider to be safe. If, after the event, the actions of a parent acting on their own in this way are questioned, the court is likely to look to see whether each parent acted reasonably and sensibly in the light of the official advice and the Stay at Home Rules in place at that time, together with any specific evidence relating to the child or family”
3) Know what actions you can take
Although, the above guidance is a radical departure from stated law, there is still a clear warning attached. If a parent behaves unreasonably, once the courts are fully operational after this pandemic is over and the matter is brought back to court by the affected parent, the other parent’s actions will be fully scrutinised. If it is found that decisions made by that parent were, in the circumstances at the time, considered to have been unreasonable, then the court has the power to deal with this.
Alternatively, with getting into court at the moment being difficult, it’s worth exploring mediation. Mediators are fully set up to work remotely and can be on hand very quickly to help you resolve issues. You will also likely get a quicker and cheaper result.
4) Don’t panic if things change
Hypothetically if stricter government measures are eventually imposed there could still be an exception for children from two homes to be able to move. However, if this is not allowed it could potentially be a case of “contact roulette”, where the children may have to stay with whichever parent they currently are at that point in time. The parent without the child could still make an urgent court application to vary this situation, but the court would still deal with in light of the government advice at the time. In this scenario, the parents would still be encouraged to ensure indirect contact is maintained and to agree “make up” contact once this is all over so that, in the long term, contact isn’t missed.
5) Do what’s in your child’s best interests now
Even with all the above guidance, parents maybe unsure as to what to do for the best. As experienced family lawyers, we advise the following:
1. Be flexible
Discuss options, be willing to compromise, get creative in making alternative arrangements.
2. Make the right decisions for now
Many parents will be worried about agreeing to something else out of fear that it might set a precedent for the future.
Whilst these concerns are legitimate, consider what is in your child’s best interests now. Children’s arrangements are always variable, so you can deal with what is in their best interests after the pandemic, after the pandemic.
If you are a separated parent without the benefit of a CAO, the above still applies to you. If you both consider it safe to continue with the agreed arrangements, keep them going.
3. Have it in writing
If either of you wants to make a change, communicate your reasons and have an open and honest discussion about what you consider to be best for your child’s wellbeing. If you come to an agreement on an alternative schedule, ensure you record this in writing. However, if you don’t agree and one parent makes a unilateral decision, the other parent will have to consider whether to make a court application or whether to wait until the pandemic is over to obtain or vary a CAO.
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