Child arrangements and coronavirus

As you no doubt know, on 23 March 2020, the Government announced very specific stay-at-home rules.

If you’re living apart from the parent of your child/ren, you might be concerned about the arrangements for them to spend time with both parents.

Current guidelines (from the President of the Family Division and Head of Family Justice) indicate that children under the age of 18 ARE able to continue moving between both households during the coronavirus restrictions. However, this does not mean that children MUST move between households.

Ultimately, the decision is up to you and the other parent. Before you make any firm arrangements, you should sensibly assess the circumstances, including:

– child(ren)’s current health
– risk of infection
– presence of any person recognised as vulnerable in either household

Sadly, you might be in a relationship where communication is difficult or impossible. However, parents are asked to prioritise the child(ren)’s needs above their own. Above everything else. you should ensure their welfare needs are being met, and the best way to achieve this is for parents to communicate sensibly with one another.

This time is likely to be confusing and possibly distressing for children and they require, more than ever, reassurance, understanding, stability and a sense of security.

If it’s possible and safe to do so, your existing arrangements should continue as agreed. Depending on the arrangements you currently have in place, you might consider limiting the amount of travelling between households.

For example, if the child/ren usually travel between homes more than once a week, you might limit it to just once, perhaps extending their stay so they can still spend the agreed amount of time with the other parent.
 
Acting under a Child Arrangements Order?
If you and your ex are acting in agreement, you can temporarily vary the agreement. If so, it would be sensible to confirm the variation in writing between both parents – this will avoid any confusion or difficulties.
 
If you and your ex do not agree to vary the arrangements, but you think that complying with the order would be against the current advice of Public Health England or Public Health Wales, you can exercise your parental responsibility and change to an arrangement that you consider to be safe for the child/ren.

You should be very careful about making amendments. Because, if you decide to act on your own, the other parent might apply to the Family Court to question your actions and enforce the original agreement (after the coronavirus outbreak is contained and some sense of normality is again achieved).

If that happens, the Court will have to decide whether each parent acted reasonably and sensibly in light of the official advice and stay-at-home rules that were in place at the time, and will look at any other evidence relating to the child and the family.

Remember, by far the best thing is to reach an agreement between both parents.

Note that, if you vary your usual arrangements (whether that’s by agreement or not), the Court will expect you to put other means of communication in place to help maintain the relationship between your child/ren and the other parent as much as possible. For example, they could communicate regularly via video calls such as Facetime, WhatsApp facetime, Skype or Zoom. If that’s not possible, then they should talk on the phone.

Summary
Whilst there is no hard and fast rule, the key message from the President of the Family Division and Head of Family Justice is “where coronavirus restrictions cause the letter of a Court order to be varied, the spirit of the Order should nevertheless be delivered by making safe alternative arrangements for the child/ren.”