Child Arrangements, Covid-19 Virus and Reasons not to Breach, but to Compromise

With the country facing an unprecedented threat from Convid-19 virus, we are going to be faced with many difficulties in our everyday lives. Things that, to date, we have all taken for granted have now been reduced. We know that this is for the protection of us all, but we have been asked to change our routines and how we live our lives in ways that we could never have imagined. For example: going out, restricted travel, seeing loved ones – everything must now be in accordance with the guidelines.

Court Orders regarding child arrangements do not allow for this, especially with self- isolation. No-one could have foreseen the effects that this virus would have on the children of divorced and separated couples, and particularly now that some schools (and/or school years) are being closed for an indefinite period.  

Now is the time for separating couples (either divorced, divorcing, or living apart (non-married) to pull together for the benefit of the children. In such frightening times, these children will be needing the support of both loving parents because, in the struggle to adapt, their mental health is being affected (as is the mental health of adults).  

There are several potential problems:

The Closure of Schools and Nurseries:

Most Child Arrangements Orders have the various school holiday elements drafted into them. No-one could have foreseen the impact that this virus would have and, in addition, how it would affect the current orders (those that could not address all of these issues, which are changing all the time).

All parents love their children and arrangements may already have been made for half term breaks, Christmas and New Year. The closure of schools, and no confirmation of when the children will be back at school, will inevitably put significant emotional and financial pressure on both parents (this will be dependent on whether or not either parent can work from home). For example, expenses such as extra food, utilities, and the demand for the internet from both the children and the adults. There is also the issue of home-schooling, bearing in mind that most us are not teachers.

This may well be a time for both parties to put past difficulties behind them. The virus (and associated restrictions) could mean both parties having to work from home. They may be laid off and are not able to go to work because of lack of childcare arrangements, or their firms may have had to let them go in the wake of lockdown or short-working.

Whilst some families are used to having and/or expecting a full wage, this may now be vastly reduced. We understand that various schemes are now available, but how these schemes touch each family is an individual matter.

Furthermore, in emergency situations, grandparents would normally pitch in to help with childcare, but the recommendations have indicated that this may not now be possible because of the virus. Some may have to shield (the writer understands that the wording  may have changed, as the different measures have different effects), but some grandparents may be frightened and cannot help in the ways they would have done before the virus.

Many events cannot now go ahead: traveling may be suspended or limited; children’s routines may have to be altered; child arrangements may require some voluntary variation to get through these difficult times (NB this is merely a suggestion to help families). This, however, is not an opportunity to keep a child (or children) for longer periods of time.

Given the current restrictions (and the threat of further restrictions on families), one of the most pressing issues for parents is going to be how best to keep the children entertained. Furthermore, various other issues, such as having to stay in, and not having friends around (not to mention the arguments and misunderstandings that this may cause).  

We have looked at the issue of school closures, but there is a further issue to consider: a parent that is caring for a child (or children) that is required to self-isolate; this may force a variation of an order.

Once again, parents are following guidelines that they could never have foreseen, e.g. self-isolation:

Under the current guidance, a child will also be required to self-isolate with a parent (if that parent has tested positive for the virus) for a period of 14-days (please check where you live with regards to recommendations). Furthermore, a child might develop symptoms while staying with a parent (subject to testing), which will mean their spending additional time at that parent’s home for the duration of their contact while self-isolating (normally they would return to the other parent at the end of the period of contact).

A child (or children) may become too unwell to visit their other parent for the normal contact: this is isolation and not enjoyment.

The parent is going to find it difficult to tell their child that everything they have ever known has now changed and that there is no freedom because of the seriousness of the virus.  

The absent parent of the family may have to drop clothes off, food …………….at the front door of the parent where the child (or children) is self-isolating, and this would be for the duration of the period of isolation.

Such instances may cause problems, particularly if you are required to comply with a Court Order (or with agreed arrangements that you have with a former partner). Due to the issues stated above, there is now additional pressure on both parents.

In order to avoid a potential argument (or dispute between parents), the following measures may be used:

Early communication with your former partner to try and agree a variation to the formal court arrangements, until the restrictions have passed:

A lot will depend on the relationship you may have with the other parent. For example, if, for various reasons, there is no contact with the other parent, then contact your solicitor and ask them to write to the other parent (ask them to consider a Voluntary Variation until the issue has resolved itself).

This may help both parents who are normally used to being able to keep the children entertained. The child’s (or children’s) usual activities, such as seeing friends, going to the cinema, going for a burger/meal or attending sporting events may have to be cancelled, so it is not going to be easy: children are simply not used to having holidays like this. Furthermore, not being able to see grandparents and other extended families, not being able to go away over the summer, and now further restrictions which may last to Christmas and New Year. In Wales, for example, there are no Halloween or Bonfire Night events taking place this year.

These precautions are for the safety of everyone. However, please remember, if a child (or children) is in isolation, there is little that can be done: with the schools now closing, time can always be made up. Most children have a mobile phone and can access the Internet and, to limit the sense of isolation, the child/children (or the parent of either) could offer to Face-Time, WhatsApp, text, email, or call.

In some extreme cases, a party could apply to the Court to vary the provisions of the current Child Arrangements Order to draft new arrangements that are consistent with the new situation, or they may try to enforce the old Order. However, given the new set of circumstances (and how often they may change), this may be not be possible,

Please remember that the virus and these new rules are going to affect child arrangements, and this may have a knock-on effect on everyone’s ability to attend Court, including judges, court staff, solicitors, and barristers. Whilst everyone will do their best to accommodate, the varying restrictions are sure to touch everyone’s lives.

Please be mindful that most (if not all) have someone who may be affected in one way or another and this, in turn, may affect Court availability (a lot of courts are now closed to the public, and most hearings are being held remotely).

Whilst you may want to make an application, this could take time, and I would suggest you do this only as a last resort. Given the virus, unless there are exceptional or urgent circumstances, there may or may (a lot will depend on the list of your local court) not be Court availability for hearing applications (Court staff must be in attendance to process the applications).  However, given the above, if one party will not hand over the chid (or children), then an application may be the only remedy.

This is not about who has a longer amount of time with the children, this is about pulling together during a frightening time.

The watchword during these times is…If there can be some voluntary agreement to child arrangement between the parties, then great.

But where assistance is needed, I am more than happy to try and help. There are no easy solutions to this crisis: there is only compromise.