Solicitor Emma Roberts advises on the legal responsibilities of co-parents during the coronavirus pandemic.
It can be difficult at the best of times to agree and maintain child arrangements amongst parents who have separated or divorced. However, this tension is likely to increase now the government has advised all to self-quarantine and schools have closed.
Please remember the circumstances of every child are different and each couple will reaction differently.
Plans can be informally agreed between separated parents or may be formally set out in a court order. The arrangements cover who a child will live with, the timescale and the amount of time they spend with others.
Parents need to make sensible decisions and act safely regarding the care arrangements for their child and deciding with whom their child spends time.
Regardless of the details of the schedule it is very important to bear in mind, that a child’s welfare is the most important consideration in conjunction with government issued advice.
Parents must abide by the government advice issued on 23 March 2020 to stay at home and away from others. The stay at home rules clarify the general position that it is no longer permitted for a person, which includes a child, to be out of their home for purposes other than essential shopping, daily exercise, attending essential work and medical needs.
The official guidelines specifically address child contact arrangements and include an exception to the mandatory stay at home requirement, however, that does not mean children must be moved between homes. It states: ‘where parents do not live in the same household, children under 18 can be moved between their parents’ homes.’
The decision as to whether a child moves between homes is for the child’s parents to make after sensible consideration, including the child’s health, infection risk and the presence of any recognised vulnerable individual in any household.
The most ideal solution for parents is to communicate with one another about their concerns and try to find a workable way forward for their families.
It is important to also be mindful that whilst one parent may believe it is safe for contact to continue, it may be entirely reasonable for the other parent to be concerned.
Child arrangements order
If possible, safe and within guidelines, the terms of a court order should be maintained. If restrictions cause the terms to require variation, communication is key between parents to ensure that the spirit of the order is maintained and delivered for the child by making safe alternative arrangements.
When parents act in agreement and conclude arrangements should be temporarily varied, they should record this via text or email.
When parents cannot agree to vary arrangements and one parent is sufficiently concerned that complying with an order would be against the Public Health England/Public Health Wales advice, that parent may exercise their parental responsibility and vary the arrangement to one they consider safe.
A court in the future is likely to consider whether each parent acted reasonably and sensibly in light of official advice and specific evidence relating to the child or family.
If as a result of a parental agreement or as a result of one parent on their own varying the arrangements, a child is unable to spend time with the co-parent, it is imperative that alternative arrangements are made to maintain regular contact, for example Skype, Facetime, Zoom, or if this is not possible, by telephone.
The current government guidelines recommend if a member of the household presents symptoms of coronavirus, the entire house must self-isolate for 14 days. Should this be necessary, regular video chats or phone calls will be very important, to ensure both co-parents maintain contact with the child.
If one parent becomes ill when the child is with them and your co-parent is better placed to care for them, arrangements can be changed. Both parents need to agree and remember the welfare of the child is the most important factor here.
Although most schools are currently closed, the government has encouraged some to remain open with skeleton staff to look after key workers’ children. Key workers including those who work for the NHS, supermarket delivery drivers and the police force.
If a former partner is a key worker and you are able to work from home, you might try to arrange for your child to live with you during this time, because of health concerns. Remember, though, that it is important to gain the consent of your co-parent (and anyone with parental responsibility).
The effects of illness
Parents should try and maintain the terms of the court order, provided they can do so safely and within government guidelines. It may become impossible due to illness to continue with arrangements. If this happens then the health and welfare of a child, when trying to organise new arrangements, is paramount.
The court would also expect parents to follow government coronavirus guidelines in relation to an individual’s movements during this period.
Term time and holiday time
Parents should try and agree their own definitions of ‘school hours’ and holiday and term time. Head teachers have been advised to continue to educate through social media or online classes. Similarly, many teachers have been offering assistance with home schooling through social media.
While there will still be some discrepancy between term time and holiday time, it seems the precise timings will be largely set out by each household.
A parent’s working hours will remain the same even when working from home. They may now be a position where they are looking after their child at the same time as conducting home working sessions.
If urgent action is needed and court intervention is required, telephone and video conferencing can take place to avoid the need to attend court in person and ensure hearings go ahead.
A specialist family law firm will have the facilities in place to enable this and should have already arranged several hearings this way. Law firms need to remain open for business at this time, through a combination of agile and remote working.
It may be necessary to explain to children that older relatives are unable to visit them right now. However, it is vital for contact to remain where possible, either on the phone or via video messaging tools.
A specialist family solicitor will offer advice and assistance when responding to complaints and queries due to altered childcare schedules and illness.
It will be frustrating and difficult at time, but all constraints on routine child arrangements will only be temporary. When the government restrictions lifted, arrangements will return back to normal.
Emma Roberts is Associate Solicitor at Stephensons Solicitors LLP and specialises in family law.