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Lockdown - what does this mean for co-parenting?
30 Mar 2020

UPDATE : On 4 January 2021 the Prime Minister announced that England will again adopt a national lockdown. Under the current Government guidance, children under 18 can be moved between their parents’ homes if parents don’t live in the same household.

 

The Government took unprecedented steps on March 23rd to restrict people’s movements and place the UK in lockdown and as of 12 October introduced a three tiered system of local COVID Alert Levels in England.

 

The news has worried parents across the nation and for those who live separately and co-parent their children, it has raised a whole lot of questions about what they should and shouldn’t be doing when it comes to movement between households.

 

Find a Lawyer, FBC Manby Bowdler's Family Team, provides some answers to your questions.


She says: “We are in unprecedented times and whilst the current local COVID Alert Level situation will prove difficult for everyone, the key for all co-parents is to implement safe and responsible co-parenting. The best way for them to do this is by communicating with each other in the most appropriate way that they can.”

1. My child lives with his mother/father, can I see him/her during lockdown?

Under the new Government guidance, children under 18 can be moved between their parents’ homes if parents don’t live in the same household. Where possible existing contact arrangements should be maintained. However, it has been made clear that this does not mean that children ‘must’ move between households and there is an expectation that parents carefully consider what is best for their child/children based on circumstances. This includes taking into consideration the child and the family's own health and whether there are any vulnerable members of the family.

2. What happens during school holidays when I was meant to have my child with me?

Wherever possible and if safe to do so, co-parents should try and maintain existing contact arrangements with their child/children. If an arrangement has been made for school holiday contact then this should still take place so long as the health of all family members has been taken into account. It’s important still to follow the guidelines. This means that if one household in a co-parenting set-up does show symptoms, they will need to self-isolate for 14 days. It also means the second household should also self-isolate if you want your child to move between the two homes freely.

3. We are waiting for a court case to decide contact arrangements for our child/children, will this still go ahead?

The Family Court, is open for some face to face hearings, with a priority to safeguard the most vulnerable children and adults in society. The majority of hearings are taking place via telephone or other remote means such as Skype or the Court’s newly introduced Cloud Video Platform. Where attendance at Court does take place new practices and procedures have been introduced to make sure buildings are safe and to minimise risks to the judiciary, staff and all those who attend courts and tribunals for hearings. The Court is dealing with a backlog of cases which could not be heard during the national lockdown and there are delays for hearings being listed.

Due to the current situation, it is therefore more important than ever for parents to have sensible dialogue to try to reach agreement about how children can maintain relationships with both parents during this difficult time.

4. Will we be in trouble with the courts if we have to vary the contact arrangements set out by the court?

The advice to parents is to follow current arrangements as best you can. However, if changes need to be made and parents can agree on a new routine then they are encouraged to record this in writing (an email or text message will suffice). If they agree that face to face contact is not in a child's best interests, they are encouraged to consider alternative methods. It has never been easier to arrange video calling through various methods such as Skype, WhatsApp video calling or Zoom conferencing. If face to face contact is not happening, a routine for these alternative methods should be agreed.

5. If I or my child’s co-parent decides to unreasonably suspend face to face contact what will happen?

If current contact arrangements are changed without agreement from both co-parents, the Family Court may, at some point, be asked to determine whether any decision made was reasonable. The Court will consider whether a parent acted reasonably and sensibly in light of the Government guidance at that time and in light of their specific family circumstances. It has been made clear that whilst it may not be possible to comply with the letter of any Court Order governing agreed contact arrangements, it should be complied with 'in spirit'. If face-to-face contact is not considered possible then alternative contact arrangements as outlined above should be made.

6. My child is worried and I’m concerned about them moving between households, what should I do?

These are worrying and unprecedented times for everyone and not least children who have had their usual routines disrupted. Parents are encouraged to put their children at the centre of their thinking, to prioritise their physical safety and emotional wellbeing. If one parent has a concern about a child then this should be communicated as much as possible to the other so that the issues can be dealt with as consistently as possible. Cafcass has issued some helpful guidance to parents which is available here www.cafcass.gov.uk/

7. Neither myself or my child’s co-parent can agree on what the current arrangements should be, what should we do?

Where it’s safe and practically possible, contact arrangements for co-parents should be maintained. If it’s not possible to agree or reach a solution then there are alternative methods of dispute resolution such as mediation which can be used to resolve disputes concerning children. If an agreement cannot be reached then it is still possible to make an application to Court, although parents should expect some delays in any hearings being listed. Arbitration, which is a process where a qualified arbitrator hears evidence from both parties may be a quicker solution.

 

Some arbitrators have indicated they are willing to deal with hearings remotely if required. Although there is a cost to using an arbitrator so parents will need to balance this against the delay in waiting for a hearing.
If parents need support in communicating with the other parent or advice on how arrangements can be altered in these circumstances, we can assist. We can also arrange arbitration for cases which are considered suitable.

 

8. Are family courts still working during a lockdown?

 

Yes, the courts are still ‘in action’ and open for some face to face hearings. Most hearings continue to take place remotely. There has been a significant increase in family court workload since the Covid-19 pandemic began and we are supporting a number of families at this time. Please don’t hesitate to contact us if we can help or if you have a question. 

 

9. My ex says I can’t have the children with me because that would mean moving to another household during lockdown. Is that right?

 

We are aware of a number of cases where parents are exploiting the Covid-19 lockdown to stop pre-approved arrangements. The head of the family courts, Sir Andrew McFarlane, has made clear that children should continue to visit parents they do not live with, as long as both households are healthy. Parents are encouraged to come up with sensible, practical solutions in these circumstances.