Child contact during lockdown
Child contact during Lymington and New Forest coronavirus crisis - with Lester Aldridge
One of the many complex challenges presented by the coronavirus crisis: this month’s Life Matters for Lymington article is by Samantha Edwards of the Lester Aldridge Family team.
If you have concerns about sorting out other aspects of “legal” life right now, from updating your will to completing a power of attorney to a host of other legal matters, do take advantage of the free consultation always on offer from an expert and friendly member of the Lester Aldridge team. Virtual meetings and advice available through phone, email, Skype and Zoom. See details below.
Many parents who have children that are the subject of Child Arrangements Orders are concerned about how the lockdown will affect their ability to see their children. Although many of you will be all too familiar with the standard exceptions to the Stay at Home requirement, you may not be aware of an important additional 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.
Contact - self-isolation rules apply if COVID-19 symptoms are displayed
As a parent, your children’s health and safety is your responsibility. If you or anyone in your household are displaying symptoms of COVID-19 or have been exposed to someone who has COVID-19, then you must follow government guidance and self-isolate. This means that your children should not attend contact until the end of the self-isolation period. Although this will be difficult, it is important that you are making sensible decisions for your children.
If you have genuine concerns that the other parent will not abide by the government’s rules, the first step will be to speak to them. You must explain your concerns and your reasoning behind those concerns. If after speaking to the other parent, you still feel that they are not taking the Stay at Home rules seriously, and you are genuinely concerned about your children’s health and safety, you may need to consider alternative arrangements. Although, having said this, we must warn you not to use the lockdown as an excuse to refuse contact. Contact must be maintained as much as possible, and any alternative arrangements need to be discussed with the other parent before any decisions are made.
If your children do not attend contact, the best option is to discuss and agree alternative arrangements with the other parent. The Family Court has been clear in its guidance that if a Child Arrangements Order cannot be followed to the letter, alternative arrangements should be made to maintain regular contact between the children and the other parent. This could mean that the other parent has daily video-chats or perhaps once your self-isolation period has ended, your children could stay with the other parent for a couple of weeks. Whatever arrangement is agreed, contact should be maintained as much as possible.
When discussing arrangements, make sure you remain calm and remember that you are doing this for your children. Their health and safety is paramount. Do not escalate the situation by going to their house and demanding to see your children, even if you are dubious of the other parent’s reasons behind suggesting adjustments. By doing so, you would be breaking the Stay at Home rules and possibly proving their argument that you are not taking the rules seriously.
Court orders are meant to be stuck to, however the lockdown represents a unique exception to this rule. If you cannot reasonably abide by the court order, then you will not be punished for agreeing sensible adjustments with the other parent. If you cannot agree adjustments with the other parent, you will need to use your own judgement as a parent to come to a practical solution.
If the other parent has refused contact altogether, or you feel that they are taking unreasonable advantage of the lockdown in order to minimise your contact with your children, you could apply to the court to enforce the Child Arrangements Order. However, in order to be successful, it not only needs to be the case that the other parent breached the order, but also that they did not have a reasonable excuse to do so. This is a big hurdle to overcome under normal circumstances, but given the current Public Health crisis, this hurdle has grown substantially.
An additional hurdle is whether your application will be heard by the court. In light of the Stay at Home rules, the court’s default position is that hearings will be taking place remotely, whether this is by telephone or by some other communication platform such as Skype or Zoom. Live court hearings will be limited to exceptional circumstances where they are sufficiently urgent and remote hearings are not possible. There is not a prescribed form of remote hearing, as it will depend on the type of hearing, but we expect the majority will be telephone hearings. As remote hearings take longer, there will be less cases in a day. This means that the courts have the unenviable job of prioritising cases and adjourning those that are less important. These measures have been implemented for the safety of the judges, court staff, lawyers and litigants and although it is frustrating for all, it is important to remember this.
Top Tips for managing contact in the best interest of everybody
Finally, we leave you with our 5 ‘top tips’ for managing contact during the lockdown:
- Communication is key –keep the other parent up to date on your children’s health and wellbeing.
- Be considerate – many people are worried about themselves and their loved ones, ask yourself if there is a reason they are acting the way they are – is someone in the household in the ‘vulnerable’ group?
- Be reasonable – the lockdown is not an excuse to prevent contact with the other parent, your children should attend contact if they can.
- Get creative – take advantage of modern technology, why not send each other video updates of your day?
- Above all, remember that you are doing this for your children - their health and wellbeing is paramount. You must work together as parents to keep your children as happy, safe and healthy as possible.
About Lester Aldridge and Life Matters
Lester Aldridge Solicitors are based in London, Southampton and Bournemouth - where the office covering the New Forest is situated conveniently close to the main Bournemouth train station. Their specialist teams in the various fields of law will be happy to advise and assist you, starting with a completely free initial consultation during which you can decide whether you feel able to trust them with your confidential information. For more information please click here. Currently during the coronavirus crisis of course consultations are via virtual meetings : advice is available through phone, email, Skype and Zoom.
Life Matters for Lymington is a series of articles written by various members of the Lester Aldridge team covering a range of relevant topics - also listed here. Particularly pertinent in current circumstances is last December's article about making time to get your affairs in order.