27th Mar 2020

Implementing a Child Arrangements Order during the Coronavirus Pandemic

By Elizabeth Fletcher

Whilst all parents are struggling with the new reality of life with the Coronavirus pandemic, those who are separated parents with children moving between two households face particular complications in managing their child’s day to day life. As a headline point, parents should know that the government and specifically the courts know this and are sympathetic to the challenges.  It is for this reason that specific guidance has been introduced.

Separated parents have often worked hard, sometimes in spite of acrimony, to achieve a good arrangement that enables their child/ren to spend time with both of their parents.  Some of those arrangements will have required court input and may have taken months or even years to achieve.  They can be fragile arrangements which require a great deal of commitment on all sides to maintain.  Sometimes, one or both parents can feel like they lose out and this can lead to further feelings of anger or resentment.

In such circumstances, a government instruction to stay at home and not to see anyone outside your household for an (as yet) unspecified period of time, can put a further strain on parents and children alike.  The government identified early on that its instruction to stay at home would not work well for the children of separated parents and provided an exception that children of separated parents may move between households.  Unfortunately, this was clumsily communicated and led to some misinformation.

The President of the Family Division has now issued guidance on the matter which can be found here. https://www.judiciary.uk/announcements/coronavirus-crisis-guidance-on-compliance-with-family-court-child-arrangement-orders/

Essentially, the Court has said “be sensible”.  Parents are still in charge and they must as always act in the best interests of their child. Therefore, while a child may move between households, they don’t have to.  If parents consider that their particular circumstances, given the risk of infection and the presence of any vulnerable individuals in either of their two homes, means that it would not be safe for their child to move between two homes, then they should not do so.

The President rightly states “More generally, the best way to deal with these difficult times will be for parents to communicate with one another about their worries, and what they think would be a good, practical solution. Many people are very worried about Coronavirus and the health of themselves, their children and their extended family. Even if some parents think it is safe for contact to take place, it might be entirely reasonable for the other parent to be genuinely worried about this.”

The court has said in clear terms – Keep communicating! If this is tough to do directly, then use technology to help you.  Explore the advice that the Parent Practice has to offer to help you too.  The government and scientific advice seems to be at the moment that this could be a marathon not a sprint so trying to keep good channels of communication open now will help down the line.

So where parents can agree, a court order can be varied for the period of the Coronavirus.  The best way to confirm any new temporary arrangement is in writing – a text or email is sufficient.

If the parents cannot agree, then the parent who considers the contact unsafe must propose some other form of safer, temporary contact such as a video call.  If parents can manage it, they should provide this generously to help make up for the loss of face to face contact.  If the other parent subsequently brings this back to the Family Court in the future, then the court will consider what was the sensible course of action at the time in light of the government guidance to Stay at Home and whether the parent with whom the child resides enabled as much phone/email/video contact as they could to support the child’s relationship with the other parent.

So in summary, if your child normally moves between two homes, think about the following:-

  1. Is it safe for them to currently do so?
  2. If its not safe, what other temporary arrangements can you put in place?
  3. Keep communicating as the situation evolves about what the best arrangements are.
  4. Write down those temporary arrangements.
  5. How can you support your child who may already be anxious about not seeing their other parent?

These are difficult situations to resolve, but by keeping the channels of communication open, parents can support their children through this difficult time as well as continuing to facilitate relationships with the other parent.

If you need any further information on this, please contact Elizabeth Fletcher at ef@flip.co.uk

Elizabeth is a Director at Family Law in Partnership; she has a particular specialism in resolving children issues.  www.flip.co.uk