Since the lockdown measures were put in place we’ve had lots of enquiries from separated parents asking for advice on the rules around children’s arrangements – and we are here to help so please get in touch! The current situation is new to all of us and there are many issues that are turning out to be particularly confusing or difficult to navigate for parents. Co-parenting after separation is challenging enough already, as there’s so much to think about both emotionally and practically for you and your children, but right now it’s even more difficult to know how to balance what is right for the children, how to adhere to existing children’s arrangements, and how to keep everyone safe.
We are working hard to help clients and families to find the best solution for their unique circumstance, and while it has been a bit of a steep learning curve, we have quickly learnt how to negotiate a variety of different post-lockdown parenting arrangements, avoid common pitfalls, and provide expert guidance on what do if a case needs to be taken to court (though this should be the very last resort). In all cases, please contact us for tailored advice.
If you’re worried, the best course of action is always to speak to your solicitor, since every case will have its own challenges, but we’ve also put together some general advice based on the official Family Court guidelines and our most frequently asked questions to help you figure out what to do.
“Is it still okay to move children between each parent’s home?”
Separated parents are expected to abide by the rules on staying at home and observing social distancing to stay safe and reduce the spread of infection, i.e. “that it is no longer permitted to be outside the home for any purpose other than essential shopping, daily exercise, medical need, or attending essential work.”
However, additional guidance issued on the 23rd of March amended these rules to include child contact arrangements, stating: “Where parents do not live in the same household, children under 18 can be moved between their parents’ homes.” This means that in most cases, it is still fine to continue existing children’s arrangements and transport your children between homes as normal. However, this doesn’t mean that children must be moved between homes, even if an arrangement order says so. For now, the decision to safely move a child between parental homes is up to the child’s parents, after making a sensible assessment of the situation.
If possible, try to minimise any unnecessary travel and contact outside your own household and if you do move children between homes, ensure you keep a ‘closed loop’ (i.e. treat your ex-spouse as part of your household but try not to have contact with anyone outside this immediate group).
And for those who are concerned that breaking the terms of a Children’s Arrangement Order, the latest guidelines state that: “parents, acting in agreement, may exercise their parental responsibility to conclude that the arrangements set out in a CAO should be temporarily varied they are free to do so. It would be sensible for each parent to record such an agreement in a note, email or text message sent to each other.”
So, to sum up:
- Communicate with your ex and try to come to a mutual agreement on a sensible and safe solution to childcare – whether that is for children to stay in one place, or be moved between homes.
- Make regular assessments and adjustments if necessary, based on the child’s present health, the risk of infection, and the presence of any recognised vulnerable individuals in one household or the other.
- Keep a written record of any temporary agreements or decisions that vary from an existing Children’s Arrangement Order.
“What if someone in my household is showing symptoms?”
Whatever situation you’re in, you should always follow the current safety guidelines on Coronavirus (Covid-19) symptoms with regard to self-isolation, household quarantine, and seeking medical help if necessary.
If you are self-isolating, you must not leave your home for any reason, and not allow visitors – including friends and family – into your home. This means that if your children are in your care during the period of isolation, you should not take them to the other parent’s house, regardless of your usual arrangements. If your children are with their other parent and your household shows symptoms, your children should remain with the other parent until the period of self-isolation is over.
“What if I don’t want my child/ren to go to the other parent’s house?” AND/OR “What if my ex is trying to stop them coming to mine?”
There are several reasons why you might not want your children travelling between two homes or staying with your ex, or vice versa. As with most issues to do with children’s arrangements, each case will be unique, and it is always best to seek the help of your solicitor for tailored advice. However there are some general guidelines on what is and isn’t a reasonable reason to restrict children’s access during the lockdown.
Being worried about transmission of the virus, and the risks of moving children from home to home is a valid reason to refuse to allow the other parent to have them. This might include concerns about the presence of a vulnerable family member in either household; concerns that the other parent is not adhering to social distancing/quarantine rules; or concerns that one parent is a key worker and therefore has increased exposed to the virus. However, the situation should not be used as an excuse to restrict access to children simply because you do not want your ex to have them.
It can be really difficult when parents have differing views on what is safe and permissible, but according to the guidelines, if one parent is ‘sufficiently concerned’ that complying with existing children’s arrangements would go against the current safety advice, ‘then that parent may exercise their parental responsibility and vary the arrangement to one that they consider to be safe’.
If this decision is questioned by the other parent and the case taken to court, there will be an investigation into 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. If the time spent with the other parent has been significantly restricted, the courts will also expect parents to make alternative arrangements for regular contact, such as FaceTime, messaging, phone calls, and other video connection.
According to the guidelines: “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.”
Above all, whatever decisions you make about children’s arrangements should be made sensibly and safely, with the well-being of everyone concerned in mind. Do your best to communicate clearly and reasonably with your ex, and be prepared to be flexible and adjust your arrangements as the situation develops. This is a scary and stressful time for many of us, but remember that it is temporary, and all we can do is try to be as practical as possible to help keep everyone safe.
The circumstances and needs of children’s arrangements will differ from family to family, so we would always suggest that you contact your solicitor for advice before taking any action. More specific answers to all the questions above can be found by talking to one of our family law team. The courts are taking children’s cases as a priority and we are working our usual ours (from home) to ensure that all our clients are being taken care of, particularly if they have concerns over children’s arrangements.
We offer a free 45-minute consultation to new family law clients so that we can discuss your situation and see how we can help. We are also able to provide mediation sessions via Zoom to help couples and parents to come to agreements about co-parenting, children’s arrangements, and any other disputes that need resolving.
For more information and to make an appointment with us, please get in touch at www.franceslindsay.co.uk.