With coronavirus affecting every aspect of life, separated parents face an additional problem: what happens to child contact arrangements during the lockdown?
Every case is different, so there is no substitute for specific advice from a specialist family lawyer, but here are some general pointers:
- On 23 March, the government put the country on lockdown and issued the “Rules on Staying at Home and Away from Others”. People are no longer permitted to be outside their home for any purpose other than essential shopping, daily exercise, medical need or attending essential work.
- There is also specific guidance on child contact arrangements for children of separated families. This provides an exception to the stay at home rules: “Where parents do not live in the same household, children under 18 can be moved between their parents’ homes.”
- The starting point is that any Child Arrangements Order should be complied with, and any informal agreements should continue unless doing so would put your child or others at risk.
- It’s important to note that the government guidelines provide an exception to the mandatory stay at home rules for children of separated parents, but do not positively oblige parents to continue current arrangements come what may. Parents should seek to agree what is best for their child in the individual circumstances, bearing in mind the child’s present health, the presence of any identified vulnerable individuals in one house or another and the risk of infection.
- If there is a Child Arrangements Order in place, then both parents can exercise their parental responsibility and agree to temporarily vary that order. You should consider recording any such agreement in writing, for example in emails between you, to avoid any future dispute.
- If you cannot reach an agreement on the safest way forward, you should take specialist legal advice. If you have sufficient concern that moving your child would contravene current advice from Public Health England, you may be justified in varying the arrangements unilaterally but every case will look to the facts. If a court examines your actions after the event, they will likely check whether each parent acted reasonably and sensibly in the light of official advice in place at that time, together with any specific factors in the case. The court’s priority is to promote the best interests of the child.
- In any event, if your child does not get to spend time with their other parent, think creatively about how to maintain regular indirect contact between them – for instance by using Face-Time, WhatsApp, Houseparty, Zoom or other video calling apps.
- You should also consider how time can be made up when the lockdown restrictions are lifted. Perhaps the other parent could have additional overnight stays or holiday contact. Any decision should be based on what is in the child’s best interests.