If you are separated from your children’s other parent, depending on your circumstances, how far apart you are living and whether your children are still going to school, it is likely the Coronavirus and government guidance is going to impact the contact arrangements and give rise to significant disagreements on issues such as whether the children should continue to go to school and whether they should travel anywhere this Easter holiday.
Current guidance from CAFCASS and the Government
- CAFCASS have issued guidance available here.
- The government has within the last 24 hours issued new rules for staying at home and away from others, available here.
Key points for parents of children living in different households
- The CAFCASS guidance issued on 23 March 2020 provides: “Unless there are justified medical/self-isolation issues – or some future nationally issued guidance or expectation associated with leaving the house in your area – children should also maintain their usual routine of spending time with each of their parents. If there is a Child Arrangements Order in place this should be complied with unless to do so would put your child, or others at risk.”
- The government guidance at 24 March 2020 states: “Where parents do not live in the same household, children under 18 can be moved between their parents’ homes”
- If you have a Court Order, set out the agreed variations to the arrangements in the Order in writing (this can be Whats App/text/email).
- If children live with you, and you are unable to comply with a Court Order which requires you to take the children to visit their other parent/ make the children available for contact, notify them immediately in writing and put forward proposals for how the other parent can see/speak to the children/FaceTime them, taking into account the government guidance. If the variations you propose are not agreed, seek legal advice on applying to Court to vary the Order.
3 Practical Tips from CAFCASS’ guidance
- Think creatively about how you can support your child to stay in touch with their other parent and family members during any period of self-isolation. Skype and FaceTime can be great ways to catch up and can be used to read stories, sing and play together. With older children you could also consider a watch party – where you gather online to watch a movie or video, commenting and ‘reacting’ in real time.
- If any court directed spending time arrangements are missed, think about how you and your co-parent may be able to ‘make up’ your child’s time after the restrictions are lifted. Remember, any rearranged spending time arrangements should always be for your child’s benefit and should not be used as a source of tension or conflict – especially at a time when your child is likely to be feeling anxious about the effects of the pandemic.
- Be extra vigilant when making sure that children cannot hear discussions about the court case or any dispute you may have with your child’s other parent. This is particularly relevant now as they are at home and there may be court hearings by Skype / teleconference. Exposing children to these disputes can result in them feeling confused, having divided loyalties and may harm them emotionally.
What does the law say?
• Most parents share parental responsibility, which means that significant decisions concerning the child’s upbringing must be made jointly.
• There is a presumption in the Children Act that involvement of both parents in a child’s life will further the Child’s welfare. When making a decision on any application under the Children Act 1989, the Court’s paramount consideration must be the welfare of the child.
A court application and arbitration
- If you have a Child Arrangements Order that is not being complied with, consider applying to enforce the Order and/or apply for a further specific issue Order.
- If you disagree and cannot resolve matters, either parent can make an application to the Court for an Order to define what time the children shall spend with each parent and to address specific issues. The application can be dealt with using Arbitration, which is likely to be more accessible in the coming weeks than the Court service.
- Arbitration can be arranged extremely quickly. It has many advantages compared to Court proceedings, including flexibility in respect of how the dispute is dealt with – it is possible for all hearings in an Arbitration to take place by phone or video link (Skype, Zoom etc.) and for the Arbitrator to deal with interim matters via e-mail having received written submissions. The Arbitrator will be a trained lawyer specialising in the field. It is quicker, almost always more cost effective and, perhaps most importantly, gives both parents some control over the process, timings for hearings and evidence required to determine the issue in dispute.
How we can help
- We have two Partner Arbitrators at Rayden Solicitors; Emily Watson, a Children Law Arbitrator and Julian Bremner, Financial Arbitrator.
- We are Family Law specialists and are able to advise you on your specific circumstances on a pragmatic solution. We can represent you in making a Court application or in an Arbitration.
- Our specialist team are fully up to date with the evolving situation, guidance from the Ministry of Justice, the service the Courts are currently offering and knowledge of what provisions local Courts in London, Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire are putting in place.
- We are seeing new clients as normal and are offering ‘virtual’ meetings via conference call facilities, or via Skype or similar video conferencing apps. Our experience of representing clients abroad means we are fully equipped to represent you remotely, if required.
Rayden Solicitors are family law specialists, offering legal advice, mediation and arbitration, with offices in St. Albans, Berkhamsted, Beaconsfield and Hampstead. Click here to contact us.