Following on from my article “Self-Isolation – What does this mean for child/parent contact arrangements?”, this is article is a follow up after further guidance being released.
As explained in the previous article, there has been confusion since the guidance to self-isolation was released, and left parents wondering whether contact between a parent and a child was considered a “necessity” to leave home and for that child to stay in more than one home.
Previously, the guidance from the Cabinet Office advised that children under 18 can travel between their separated parents’ home and so yes, contact between a parent and a child should continue as usual and in accordance with any agreement or Court Order.
However, the Courts and Tribunals Judiciary has now released the following updating guidance (only a snippet below):
“During the current Coronavirus Crisis, some parents whose children are the subject of Child Arrangement Orders made by the Family Court have been understandably concerned about their ability to meet requirements of these court order safely in the wholly unforeseen circumstances that now apply…
The expectation must be that parents will care for children by acting sensibly and safely when making decisions regarding the arrangements for their child and deciding where and with whom their child spends time…
Government guidance issued alongside the Stay at Home Rules on 23rd March deals specifically with child contact arrangements. It says: Where parents do not live in the same household, children under 18 can be moved between their parents’ homes. This establishes an exception to the mandatory ‘stay at home’ requirement; it does not, however, mean that children must be moved between homes. The decision whether a child is to move between parents 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. 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.”
So, what does this mean in reality?
What happens if both parents are in agreement with varying an agreement or Court Order?
The agreement or arrangements set out within the Court Order can be temporarily varied for the benefit of the child and the parents, which seems the most sensible approach.
It would also seem reasonable for that variation to be recorded through, for example, a letter, email or text message sent between the parents.
What happens if the varying of the agreement or Court Order means that a parent is not able to spend time with the other parent?
If, for example, the parents have concerns regarding the child’s health if that child was to move between households, then no doubt the Courts will expect that the parents establish and maintain regular contact between the parent and the child, through means such as social media, text messages, telephone calls, Skype etc to ensure that relationship continues throughout the Coronavirus crisis, especially as it is an unknown as to when normality will resume.
It would also be sensible for the parents to arrange for the other parent to make up for the time missed with their child.
What happens if one parent does not agree to the other’s variation of the agreement or Court Order?
If one parent is sufficiently concerned that complying with the arrangement or Court Order would be against the current Government advice, or they are concerned of the safety of the child in the event that they did comply with the arrangement or Court Order, then that parent may vary the arrangement to one that they consider being safe.
However, and after the event, if the actions of the parent acting on their own are questioned by the other parent, then the Court is likely to make a decision as to whether they agree that each parent acted reasonably and sensibly in light of the Government advice and the rules in place at that time, together with any other specific evidence relating to that child and/or family.
To conclude, and whilst it is understandable that parents should have an understanding and an appropriate dialogue to work out between themselves the best solution for the child during the Coronavirus crisis, no doubt there some may use this as a tool to attempt to outsmart the Court system, especially if there are already ongoing concerns within Children Act proceedings and potential concerns regarding parental alienation.
If you wish to read a copy of the full guidance presented by the Court and Tribunals Judiciary, please do not hesitate to contact me for a full copy.
The information provided in this article is not intended to constitute legal advice and you should take full and comprehensive legal advice on your individual circumstances by a fully qualified Solicitor before you embark on any course of action.
Emma Aslett Penn Chambers Solicitors 0207 183 4595