UPDATE : 23 MARCH (post lockdown). I’ve written another post here which is more up to date (but sadly not very helpful). I will update it when I Can.
First off, I don’t have all the answers. I can’t give you legal advice about your case.
That disclaimer out of the way, I hope I can say something generally useful. I know a lot of parents are worrying about all of this and how they should respond when there are child arrangements orders in place or hearings coming up.
I hope you can use this post to make some good decisions as parents about how to deal with the coming days.
A dad sent me a message earlier. It asked a question I have seen asked on various groups in the last few days, and which I had realised people would need answers to. But a combination of other commitments (court hearings, kids etc) and a lack of clear information has made that difficult until now. Things are still changing.
This is what he asked :
I have a child’s arrangements order in place for alternate weekends I’m just very lost into in the event of government advice for no travel or a lockdown where I stand in terms of my order what I should do ? Am I able to still see my child like still collect to bring to home obviously can’t take her anywhere and that’s fine I really need to know what I’m suppose to do…
Really hope you can help I’m sure I’m not the only person worried
So thanks to that dad who has kicked me into gear.
I think there are three main questions I’m seeing :
- What about sending my child for contact – will I be in trouble if I don’t?
- I want to see my child?
- What about hearings?
Sending your child for contact
When I talk about contact here, I’m generally talking about any situation where children move between one parent and another – so shared care too.
Whether or not there is a court order in place you still need to behave like a sensible parent.
- If anyone in your household is symptomatic and you are therefore self isolating you should not be sending your child for contact with their other parent.
- If anyone in the other parent’s household is symptomatic or they are self isolating you should not be sending your child for contact with their other parent.
- If your child is poorly with something that might be coronavirus you should not be sending them for contact.
- You should think about offering telephone or video contact as an alternative. You can try and make arrangements for starting things up again when isolation or illness has passed.
- If you and your child would have to travel on public transport or expose yourself to health risk in order to get your child to contact (for example because you have a health vulnerability) you can ask for the other parent to collect them or make alternative travel arrangements.
- If you or the other parent cannot manage travel arrangements because you now have unexpected childcare or work commitments due to coronavirus, you need to let the other parent know and see if you can find a workaround.
- If you are worried about sending your child to contact because you don’t trust your ex to keep the children safe and to follow the guidance about corona virus – talk to them before making your decision.
I want to see my child
Again, I’m talking about contact and shared care here.
Whether or not there is a court order in place you still need to behave like a sensible parent.
- If anyone in your household is symptomatic and you are therefore self isolating you should not be bringing your child into contact with their other parent.
- If anyone in your household is symptomatic or they are self isolating you should not be bringing your child into your household contact or having face to face contact with them.
- If your child is poorly with something that might be coronavirus you should not be demanding they come for contact.
- You can ask about telephone or video contact as an alternative. You can try and make arrangements for starting things up again when isolation or illness has passed.
- If your child and their other parent would have to travel on public transport or expose themself to health risk in order to get your child to contact (for example because they have a health vulnerability) you should think about arranging to collect them or about making alternative travel arrangements.
- If you or the other parent cannot manage travel arrangements for contact because you now have unexpected childcare or work commitments due to coronavirus, you need to let the other parent know and see if you can find a workaround.
- If the other parent is expressing their concern about sending your child to contact because they think you might not follow the guidance about corona virus and are anxious about your child’s safety – talk to them and offer reassurance that you understand and will follow the guidance and keep your child safe (and follow the guidance, obviously!).
Do parents have to stick to court orders?
Court orders are meant to be stuck to, and they can be enforced if they aren’t. If it is safe and practical to do so you should stick to them and you should expect the other parent to do so.
BUT. If it is obvious that some adjustment is going to be sensible, and if you can agree a change, then you should sort that out between you and not feel that you HAVE to stick to the letter of the order.
Your court order never anticipated that we would be in this situation. So, if it isn’t safe, you may have to make a plan B.
If you can agree sensible adjustments, that’s fine.
If you can’t agree about what is safe and sensible you will have to make your own best judgment as a parent. Whatever you do, the best way to deal with these difficult times is to communicate with the other parent about what your worries are, and what you think would be a good, practical solution.
Try to remember that lots of people are really worried about corona virus and the health of themselves, their children and their extended family. Even if you think its safe, it might be entirely reasonable for the other parent to be genuinely worried about things. They might not be stopping contact just to spite you, or using corona virus as an excuse.
Even if you are sceptical about whether concerns are genuine, try not to fall into the trap of escalating matters by making a scene or turning up at the door. It won’t help relations, you probably won’t get your contact, and you are going to be stretching police resources if the other parent calls the police (quite apart from upsetting the kids). If it is an excuse, it won’t be a good excuse forever.
Instead, try to find other ways to keep in touch with your kids, even if you can’t see them. You won’t be the only one in this position.
If you are a parent worried about sending a child to contact, or to live with their other parent, try if you can to talk to them about your worries. They might be able to reassure you.
Whatever you decide you will be wondering about the consequences of doing something that doesn’t match the order or that isn’t agreed.
A child arrangements order can be enforced by making an application for an enforcement order (unpaid work, compensation etc). Even if an order is proved to have been broken there is a defence of ‘reasonable excuse’. Although each case will depend on the facts, much of what I’ve described above (not sending your child because of self-isolation etc) is likely to be a reasonable excuse for not sending a child to contact / back to the other parent. Ultimately you will have to make your own judgment about that as a parent, but I would suggest that if a parent acts on genuine health concerns or government guidance about corona virus they should not be overly worried about being in trouble with the court. I would suggest any parent in this situation should explain by email, text message or whatsapp (or platform of your choice) what they are worried about and why, and what their alternative suggestions are (video call for example).
One alternative suggestion I’ve seen online is that where one household is self-isolating meaning that the normal contact pattern is messed up, they are agreeing to a switch after 14 days (easier now school is out), so that any lost time is made up with a chunk of time after self-isolation ends, and a breather for the poor parent who was locked up with the kids for a fortnight. That might not work for everyone, but creative solutions are required here.
What about court hearings?
Lots of parents will have hearings coming up soon. They may have been waiting a long time for them.
Courts are working hard to make sure that urgent and important hearings go ahead. They are having to prioritise. Lots of judges and lawyers are in self isolation. As of today the default position should be that hearings are conducted by telephone or video rather than by attending court buildings – BUT the systems for setting up hearings to run that way are still being worked through, and courts are still working through how best to make things work when people don’t have lawyers, and when people don’t have a device (phone, laptop etc), or wifi, or phone credit to be able to dial in or receive a call from the court to take part in a hearing.
It’s also worth remembering that some hearings will not be suitable to be heard by video or phone link, and may need some face to face contact – at the moment my guess would be these might be hearings which will need witnesses to give evidence, or which will need interpreters, or which will involve people who will find it hard to connect or communicate via a link, for disability or other reasons. Long hearings and trials with live witness evidence that are due to happen in the next couple of weeks are probably at high risk of being put off, at least until things are clearer.
If you have a hearing coming up, be prepared for it to be postponed or for it to go ahead using phone or video link.
If you have a solicitor your solicitor should keep you in the loop about things like this, and although many solicitors offices are closed they are generally working from home where possible so should still be reachable. If you have a hearing coming up and haven’t heard from your solicitor you might want to drop them a line to check what arrangements are being made for your hearing, and to talk through the logistics.
You should keep an eye on your mail and your inbox for updates from the court, and if you have a hearing in the next week or two, contact your solicitor if you have one, and if not, the court – be warned that courts are very busy at the moment sorting out hearings for tomorrow and Monday and Tuesday – and may not have got to your case yet. Be prepared when you ring or email to tell them your name, and your case number, and the date of the hearing. Make sure you tell them if you or anyone else in the case is in person, and make sure you tell them if you have any childcare, travel or other difficulties, including if you may have a difficulty dialling into a hearing because you don’t have a working phone, you don’t have credit (the court may be able to dial out to you), or you have a health condition which prevents you from safely coming to court.
If it isn’t urgent, it is possible your hearing will be put off. The court’s first priority will be dealing with urgent hearings that are essential to keep children safe and which cannot wait. Things are likely to change and to stabilise in coming weeks as all the professionals get used to setting up and running hearings remotely, but things may not be completely straightforward if your hearing is in the next couple of weeks.
Overall, whether it is about contact, court hearings or life in general I have three main tips :
- try to keep calm and not overreact
- try to follow the rules as best you can (yes, sometimes they seem contradictory, just do your genuine best)
- communicate with others with kindness and consideration
- offer to help out or adjust things (if you can) if your child’s other parent is struggling due to health or other corona related issues
- show your family you love them – by video call if you need to, just until things get back to normal
For those interested in reading it, the guidance issued today by the President of the Family Division (the most senior family judge in England & Wales) is here. Keep an eye on the gov.uk site for updates about the court service and how it is running in terms of phone and video hearings here, and further updates from the senior judges at judiciary.uk.