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What does COVID-19 mean for child contact arrangements?
01
April

What does COVID-19 mean for child contact arrangements?

By: Abigail Whelan

Tags: Children, COVID-19, Family Law

We have all seen the government advice about staying home, unless we need to leave the house for specific reasons, such as picking up “essential items” from the shop. But what does this mean for those who are separated parents, with children that spend time between houses?

Sir Andrew McFarlane, who is the most senior Judge in the Family Court , has released guidance on this, which can be found here

The Guidance is focussed on the situation where there is already a court order in place setting out the arrangements for children, but it may also be useful for families who normally arrange things informally, or who are trying to reach an agreement following a recent separation.

Essentially, there is no ban on children moving between houses during the current period of lockdown as a result of COVID-19. It is recognised that the relationships children have with both of their parents are important.

However, this doesn’t mean that children have to continue to move between houses.

In particular, the guidance does suggest that where one parent feels that contact would not be safe, or would not be in line with guidance for health officials, they can vary the arrangements to ones which are safer.   For example, if you or your child are “shielding” for 12 weeks or are in the very vulnerable category, it might be reasonable to stop your child moving between houses, to reduce the risk of them catching and spreading COVID-19. If the risk of your child catching COVID-19 whilst staying with the non-resident parent is low, or you are not in an “at risk” group, it may be much more reasonable for contact to continue as normal.  

Other variations might also be reasonable to (in the phrase used by Sir Andrew) “vary the arrangement to one that they consider to be safe.” For instance, where one parent is normally reliant on public transport to  drop off or collect their child, parents might want to consider whether it would be safer for the other parents (if they have a car) to drop off or collect the child instead, as a temporary arrangement, to minimise the need to go out in public.   Similarly, if handovers normally take place in public spaces this might, again, be something which has to be reviewed by the parents and alternatives suggested.

The approach set out in the guidance appears to be that provided parents are acting reasonably and sensibly in light of the current guidance from the government, they are unlikely to be  penalised in subsequent court proceedings, for breaching a child arrangements order

If there is currently a child arrangements order in place, regulating how much time your child spends with each parents, the judiciary have suggested that, where both parents have agreed to temporarily alter the arrangements, that this should be recorded in writing – for example by text or in an email.

The guidance also makes very clear that where direct contact is suspended for safety reasons, it will be appropriate for parents to make sure that other types of contact, such as telephone calls and video call through services such as Skype, Zoom or Facetime  takes place instead.

The overriding aim, where children are concerned, is always to focus on what is in the best interests of the children – and the guidance reflects this, by making it clear that parents are still expected to prioritise the need for children to maintain relationships with both of their parents, but accepting that it may be in their interests for the normal arrangements to change as much as is needed to keep the children or their families safe.

Of course, in the event that stricter lock-down rules are introduced this guidance may change.

If you are not certain whether changes being proposed to an order relating to your children are reasonable, or if you need other advice relating to contact in the current situation, please get in touch with us. We are able to offer a free initial consultation (currently by telephone).

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