Going to court can be a minefield for most. Family lawyer, Shahzea Tahir explains a bit about how the courts can help, if necessary.
Sir Andrew McFarlane, who is in charge of family courts in England and Wales, gave this and other guidance to parents in April 2020 due to the increase level of disputes concerning contact arrangements for children during the current Covid-19 crisis.
He urges people to focus on the child’s welfare and to try and ensure children are in touch with both of their parents. Communication between the parents is the key.
He goes on to say that the country is in the middle of a Public Health crisis on an unprecedented scale. The expectation must be that parents will care for children by acting sensibly and safely when making decisions regarding the arrangements for their child and deciding where and with whom their child spends time.
Whether there is a court order or an informal arrangement in place, the government guidelines are that children under 18 can travel between their separated parents, if safe to do so.
This does not, however, mean that children must be moved between homes. The decision whether a child is to move between parental homes is for the child’s parents to make after a sensible assessment of the circumstances, including the child’s present health, the risk of infection and the presence of any recognised vulnerable individuals in one household or the other.
A child’s safety with regard to the virus is a matter for parental judgment, as is the use of practical alternatives to minimise any potential risk, and to alleviate any potential concern the parties may have. This may mean parents coming to an agreement to facilitate contact in a different way, for example to change the mode of pick up and drop off to avoid public transport. They could change to video/telephone contact as opposed to direct contact as a short term agreement, if for example one of the parents is a key worker or there is a vulnerable person in the household.
Essentially, a sensible assessment of the circumstances should be made. It is a matter of personal judgement and agreement between the parents, if possible, with the welfare of the child always being of paramount consideration.
This of course only applies to contact between two separated parents. Contact with respect to grandparents, or extended family must still follow government guidelines on social distancing, which is for everyone to avoid close contact with anyone you do not live with.
In some situations, it is clear that contact will have to be restricted and a common sense approach will need to be adopted by both parents.
The government has from Monday 1 June updated its guidance with the aim to return life to as nearly normal as possible. This includes more relaxed rules, but the ultimate message of staying alert, controlling the virus and saving lives will continue to require parents cooperation.
The key aspects of the new guidance include:
Spending time outdoors, including private gardens and other outdoor spaces, in groups of up to six people from different households, following social distancing guidelines;
Going to work if you cannot work from home and your business has not been required to close by law;
More shops opening, with a plan for more to do so later in the month;
Children in early years (age 0-5), reception, year 1 and year 6 can return to childcare or school in line with the arrangements made by their school;
People can be tested as part of the test and trace programme, which will enable them to return to normal life as soon as possible, by helping to control transmission risks;
This guidance is for the general public who are fit and well and can be reviewed on the government website, on the following link:
There is separate, specific guidance on isolation for households with a possible coronavirus infection.
For example, if you, your child, or anyone in your household has coronavirus symptoms, and you are self-isolating or indeed, if anyone in the other parent’s household has symptoms or they are self-isolating, contact should not take place. But this will of course be for only a set period of time in accordance with government guidelines, currently at least 7 days if you have symptoms and 14 days if you live with someone who has symptoms.
If contact is suspended for a short period of time due to the above, alternatives should be discussed, for example, telephone or video contact.
It is important to distinguish self-isolation and social distancing which has been mentioned above from shielding, which is advice for people at high risk from coronavirus to stay at home to avoid getting the virus.
This can cause a bit of a stir for parents who need to weigh up the risk of allowing contact to take place if they are living with someone who is shielding.
The Government guidelines for those living with people that are shielding are that if one person in the household is shielding, the rest of your household do not need to start shielding themselves, but they should do what they can to support the person shielding and to carefully follow guidance on staying alert and safe (social distancing).
The guidance recommends that the person shielding should minimise the time other people living with them spend in shared spaces such as kitchens, bathrooms and sitting areas, and keep shared spaces well ventilated. They should keep 2 metres (3 steps) away from people they live with and everyone in their household should regularly wash their hands with soap and water for 20 seconds, avoid touching their face and clean frequently touched surfaces.
Following these guidelines would allow parties to come to an agreement to keep contact with the children open. However, once again, a sensible risk assessment taking into account all circumstances should be made by both parents.
Despite the easing of lockdown restrictions, it is clear, from some children contact disputes thus far, that this may not necessarily ease parental concerns. Unfortunately for some, this is having a knock on effect on children maintaining any form of meaningful contact with their separated parent.
In an ideal situation, both parents would be able to discuss the children contact arrangements and come to a sensible solution, putting the welfare of the children ahead of any other need. However, there are of course some situations where either an application to the Court for a Child Arrangements Order or enforcement of an existing Order may be the only recourse.
For some, doing something for the sake of the child, even when you they don’t want to, is just not feasible.
To discuss these or any other children or family issues, please contact Shahzea Tahir on firstname.lastname@example.org or visit Rights of Women website on www.rightsofwomen.org.uk for further details on our free confidential adviceline for women.
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