On Monday 23rd March 2020 the Prime Minister gave a historic announcement, putting the UK into lockdown. This was largely expected, but few had time to prepare, including many families with child arrangements. The government have since extended the lockdown for a further 3 weeks.
But what does that mean for your family? Family Solicitor Jonathan Whettingsteel looks at the latest guidance and advice on offer.
Please click on any of the topics below to read more:
The following morning Michael Gove appeared on breakfast show Good Morning Britain and was asked about what this meant for children whose parents lived in separate households. Mr. Gove stated that children were not to move between households, effectively meaning they would stay with the parent whom they were with when lockdown was announced. A few minutes later Mr. Gove then appeared on BBC breakfast news to retract this comment and apologise, clarifying that children can indeed move between households to spend time with both parents.
The official Government guidance was updated on 29th March 2020 - you can read more about this here.
This guidance states;
Where parents do not live in the same household, children under 18 can be moved between their parents’ homes.
It is therefore clear that children can continue to spend time with both parents when they do not live together, however if anyone in either household does display symptoms of the virus then children should not move between households, with this household then going into isolation to prevent the further spread.
However, although the guidance is children can move back and forth, the practical implications of this are more difficult.
On 24th March 2020 the President of the Family Division, Sir Andrew McFarlane published guidance titled, ‘Coronavirus Crisis: Guidance on Compliance with Family Court Arrangements Orders.
It is recommended parents read this document, which is brief but provides clear guidance and recommendations.
Here are some of the key points:
The decision whether a child is to move between parental homes is for the child’s parents to make after a sensible assessment of the circumstances, including the child’s present health, the risk of infection and the presence of any recognised vulnerable individuals in one household or the other.
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.
The obvious point is that if the parents were likely to be able to agree and communicate they would have been unlikely to have needed the intervention of the court in the first place! The guidance does however continuing stating;
Where parents do not agree to vary the arrangements set out in a CAO, but one parent is sufficiently concerned that complying with the CAO arrangements would be against current PHE/PHW advice, then that parent may exercise their parental responsibility and vary the arrangement to one that they consider to be safe. If, after the event, the actions of a parent acting on their own in this way are questioned by the other parent in the Family Court, the court is likely to look to see 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, together with any specific evidence relating to the child or family.
Where, either as a result of parental agreement or as a result of one parent on their own varying the arrangements, a child does not get to spend time with the other parent as set down in the CAO, the courts will expect alternative arrangements to be made to establish and maintain regular contact between the child and the other parent within the Stay at Home Rules, for example remotely – by Face-Time, WhatsApp Face-Time, Skype, Zoom or other video connection or, if that is not possible, by telephone.
The President appears to suggest that parents are agree to vary a Child Arrangements Order if they deem it appropriate. If one parent changes arrangements without the agreement of the other then they will need to consider that if the court were to look back whether they would be satisfied they were justified in doing so. Parents will therefore need to consider that if they are going to vary a Child Arrangements Order what their motivation is for doing so, and how a Judge may view this. If direct contact is not taking place then it is expected arrangements will be made to continue to ensure contact and a relationship between the child and both parents.
Parents should consider how to safely continue contact;
- Can handovers take place whilst maintaining social distancing between the parents? – Is the child old enough to walk from one parent to the other themselves;
- Can handovers take place in a public and open air location?
- Can contact take place in an open location, such as a park?
- Consider extending the length of contact to have handovers less frequently, for example if a parent has the child on a Wednesday and a Friday, instead of having four handovers that week considering a Thursday through to Friday, giving consecutive days. It is common for one parent to have alternate weekends and or two nights each week, make their weekend into a four or five day weekend. This may mean longer periods with each parent not seeing the child, but they can still maintain contact and communications in other ways
Where a parent is not having direct contact there are still inventive ways that can be used for indirect contact.
Using FaceTime or video calling look doing the same activity together;
- Watch a film - for example, Netflix has a new group chat option for streaming films and series
- Read a book
- Prepare and / or eat the same meal together
- Exercise together
- Learn a dance
- Play a game
It is important to keep a routine to contact, and have an agreed time and day(s) that you will have telephone / video contact. Treat this the same as you would with direct contact.
CAFCASS have also published guidance on family relationships during the Covid-19 situation which can be found here.
The most important point is to ensure all decisions are child focused and what is best for the child.
Across the world there has been a noticeable and recorded rise in reports of domestic abuse and violence in countries that have been put into lockdown. This is as a result of parties being in close proximity in tense situations and victims being unable to escape from perpetrators.
The National Domestic Abuse Helpline has reported a 25% increase in calls and online requests for help since the implementation of the UK lockdown, with internet traffic to their website increasing 150% from February.
In France the Government have funded 20 pop-up domestic abuse centers and 20,000 hotel nights for victims of domestic abuse. However, in the UK it is unclear what measures are being put in place to support victims, particularly if the lockdown is extended beyond the three-week review on Monday 13th April, which appears likely. Nick Thomas-Symonds, Labour MP has however written to Priti Patel, his Conservative Counterpart to ask for funding and support to put in place emergency protective measures.
Where someone is unable to contact the police is speak out due to being stuck with a perpetrator they can dial 999 and then 55 which will activate ‘silent solution.’ This means the caller will not need to speak on the telephone, but the call handler will continue to listen to the call and the police can be sent without the caller needing to speak.
The courts are still dealing with urgent protective measures, including court hearings to make non-molestation and occupation orders. Although most matters are being dealt with remotely, by telephone or video hearings, in extreme and emergency circumstances, where an applicant cannot get to a telephone they can attend the court in person.
If you are experiencing domestic abuse please call the freephone, 24-hour National Domestic Abuse Helpline
As noted above, the courts are having to prioritise hearings, and a number of people have found their cases to be adjourned and put back until a later date in place of more urgent matters.
The court are still processing family applications, including divorce, children and financial matters, all of which can be submitted online. It is important people do not feel they are stuck in a situation and unable to act because of the current lockdown.
Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunal Services published an update on 6th April 2020 setting out the work that will be dealt with as a priority - view this here.
For work falling outside of the listed categories an update is provided here.
This confirms applications for new Children Act proceedings are being processed and how this can be done online.
As with children applications, the court are still processing and listing financial applications. Many solicitors and Barrister’s have access to telephone and video conferencing facilities, and will be able to provide advice and representation remotely.
Although the global pandemic has had a substantial impact on everyone’s way of life and changes have been made, and no doubt will continue to be made, as much as possible the courts are trying to continue to assist those who need it.
We offer remote video conferencing, phone or email, so please get in touch with our family team today: