To echo a familiar phrase, we are in “unprecedented” times. As the situation and the government advice has and will continue to progress rapidly, we all face uncertainty, and this is no more true than for parents and children of separated families. Co-operation between parents is essential, now more than ever. Unfortunately, that might be easier said than done for those parents who are already or have been locked in conflict.
Should the normal arrangements for our children stay in place?
The current government guidance does not mean that the arrangements you have in place for your children should fall away. These arrangements, whether informally agreed or set out in a court order, remain effective and should continue to be followed. Indeed, taking children from one home to another is a legitimate journey according to government advice, which provides an exception that where parents do not live in the same household, children under 18 can be moved between their parents’ homes. The advice from Cafcass is that, if possible, children can maintain their usual routine of spending time with each parent. The uncertainty created by Covid-19 should not be used as an excuse to undermine arrangements for children that are in place.
That being said, if one parent is sufficiently concerned that complying with the court order would be against current Public Health England advice, then that parent may choose to vary the arrangements to an alternative that they consider to be safe. The important point to remember is, where Covid-19 restrictions mean that the specifics of a court order should be varied, the spirit of that order should remain by making safe alternative arrangements for the child.
For example, where a child or live-in family member is unwell and/or showing the symptoms of the virus, or where there are key workers in either family, it may be appropriate for the usual arrangements that are in place for their children to be paused. In which case, parents should take advantage of the abundance of technology available to facilitate alternative, indirect contact between a parent and their child regularly, or inline (as far as possible) with an existing court order or previously agreed child care arrangements. For example, a FaceTime call on the days where the children would have otherwise been with the other parent. If there were to be any later court proceedings, the court would likely consider how reasonable the actions of each parent were in light of the government/public health advice at the time and how effectively they worked together to try and co-parent and accommodate each other for the sake of the children during this extremely difficult time.
What can I do to ensure that I am on the same page with my ex?
Practically speaking, it will be beneficial for separated parents to discuss and agree the approach being taken in each of their homes as to hygiene and other preventative measures being put in place, so that parents (and their children) feel reassured that the same rules apply in both homes. Consistent messaging for children and maintaining routines as far as possible will be key in these worrying times in order to alleviate any anxiety they may be feeling.
With schools closed for the majority of children and many parents juggling working from home with childcare and/or home schooling, parents may wish to alter arrangements to share the load, and they can do so by agreement. It is important to be flexible and to promote the relationship between the children and their other parent.
What can I do if my ex won’t let me see our children?
Where a parent is unreasonably refusing to make children available to spend time with their other parent, ultimately a court application could be made. Court hearings are still running but are taking place remotely, with parties dialling into hearings or using video link. However, the reality is that there could be delays in applications being processed and cases being heard given the precautions having to be taken by all to follow government advice (there are fewer members of court office staff, for example). Parents should consider whether mediation could be an alternative option for them to address any issues that may be preventing one parent allowing the other to see the children. Such a process, whilst being conducted virtually during the current crisis, can be very effective in helping parents listen to each other and address any prohibitive issues between them.
What if I can’t agree arrangements with my ex but don’t want to go to court?
Parents who are unable to agree could and should take advantage of alternative methods of dispute resolution accessed remotely from the comfort of their own homes. This could include mediation, private arbitration, family therapy and/or coaching or jointly instructing a parenting coordinator.
For further information, or if you need assistance in relation to any of the issues highlighted above, please contact a member of Winckworth Sherwood’s Family team.