The Stay at Home Rules announced by Boris Johnson on 23 March were met with confusion and worry by many separated parents, who were unsure of the best steps to take and whether they would still be able to share care of their children. As family law solicitors, we have heard from worried parents who are concerned that their ex-partner may use the pandemic as an excuse to break court orders, or who are otherwise anxious about the prospect of being kept away from their child.
The vast majority of parents want to do what is best for their child. Issues arise when parents disagree on what exactly constitutes as ‘best’ for their children. Some parents are arguing that children should stay in one parental home to maximise social distancing. Others feel that pausing contact with one parent would be highly distressing to their children and damaging to their welfare.
While government guidance is subject to change during these turbulent times, our family law team have put together answers for the most frequently asked questions we are hearing around child contact and COVID-19.
Am I still allowed to see my children?
The Government guidance currently states that while children should not normally be moving between households, this may be necessary for children under 18 whose parents are separated. Child Arrangement Orders should continue to be followed, while also following the Stay at Home Rules as closely as possible. It is up to those with parental responsibility to decide whether continuing to follow their usual Child Arrangements Order is sensible and in the child’s best interests.
If someone in my household falls ill, should my ex still see my children?
Parents must follow the ‘Rules on Staying at Home and Away from Others’. As most of us know, the government guidance states that if someone exhibits symptoms of COVID-19 that person must stay at home for 7 days. All other household members, including any children, must not leave the house for 14 days after the person first showed symptoms – even if the other household members feel well.
Conversely, if a member of your partner’s household falls ill, then your child should not visit that household until the 14 days isolation period has finished.
When parents disagree about changing the arrangements usually followed, but one parent is ‘sufficiently concerned’ that following the normal arrangements would go against the current government advice, then that parent can use their parental responsibility to ‘vary the arrangement to one they consider to be safe’. The Courts and Tribunals Judiciary has stated that if this is later questioned, the Family Court ‘will 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.’
I’m concerned about my child visiting their other parent. What can I do?
Guidance from the Courts and Tribunals Judiciary states that ‘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’.
We agree that, where possible, parents should work together to effectively communicate. This means letting your ex-partner know about your worries, being open to hear suggestions from them, and working together to come to an agreement. If the other parent is hostile, our family solicitors can walk through your best options. You can call us on 01273 604 123 or email email@example.com.
If normal contact can’t happen, what can we do?
If for any reason the normal arrangements cannot be followed and your child needs to stay with one parent for the time being, the parent taking care of the child should make sure that the other parent is able to have regular scheduled contact remotely. You can do this by video connection, such as Skype or FaceTime, or if that is not possible, by telephone. We have heard of some parents setting up bedtime stories over FaceTime, scheduled games over Xbox or PlayStation, and daily conversations over video.
If communications break down and you are unable to agree on scheduled remote contact, you may need to take advice on your next best steps.
Will the rules about child contact change?
Unfortunately the current situation makes it very difficult to plan ahead. If you are concerned about your child’s welfare at this time, please don’t hesitate to call our family law team.
Your initial consultation
Our first priority during the Covid-19 outbreak has been to ensure that we continue to provide first class support to our clients. We are able to hold your initial consultation over telephone, Skype, or facetime, and can advise you around any concerns you may have about your child’s living arrangements during this time.