Separated families: Navigating the coronavirus crisis

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Separated families: Navigating the coronavirus crisis

<01/04/2020

Whilst we all get to grips with the brave new world of social distancing and homeschooling, for many families there will be an added concern of how to safely ensure that their children are maintaining a relationship with both parents in different households.

Unfortunately, the Government advice was initially somewhat convoluted in respect of this, although they have since set out some clear guidelines which families can follow.

The main thing to remember is that the country is in the middle of a public health crisis on an unprecedented scale. It is generally presumed that parents will act in their children’s best interests and will make safe and sensible decisions for their child or children in the short term, regarding where the child shall live or who they should spend time with.

The Stay at Home Rules set out by the government mean that nobody, including children, are allowed to leave their home for any purpose other than: essential shopping, daily exercise or work, medical need. The Government guidance issued alongside these rules on 23 March 2020, specifically state that child contact arrangements may continue “where parents do not live in the same household, children under 18 can be moved between their parents’ homes”.

What is important to remember is that this is guidance and does not mean that children must be moved between homes. The decision as to whether children should move between homes falls to the parents to make a sensible assessment of the circumstances. This will include each parent’s health, who they are coming into contact with and the child’s present health. Some households may contain vulnerable individuals, or example an elderly father may be living with one parent who has been advised to self-shield because he falls into a vulnerable category, and this will be a factor in any decisions made.

The difficulty will arise where one parent believes that it is safe for contact to take place but it might be entirely reasonable for the other parent to be genuinely worried about this.

If parents can reach an agreement, then they should record this in writing via email or text message sent to each other so that it can be viewed in the future should it need to be.

Where parents don’t agree and one parent is particularly concerned that complying with the Child Arrangements Order that is in place from the court would be against the current advice from the Government, then that parent may vary the arrangements set out in the Order to one which they consider to be safe. Ultimately, the court will look at whether each parent acted reasonably and sensibly in light of the official advice provided by the Government and the current circumstances of each household at the time that the decision was made.

If direct contact is suspended for a time because there are health concerns, then the courts will expect alternative arrangements to be made to ensure that regular contact between the child and the other parent is maintained remotely. There are a number of platforms available for parents to set this up, including FaceTime, WhatsApp Chat, Skype, Zoom or the House Party App. If that is not possible, then this must be done by telephone at the very least.

As parents, it is only natural to want to do as much as possible to keep your children safe. There are no precedents for the right and wrong way of dealing with this issue and, to a large extent, a degree of common sense and practicality is going to have to prevail in the short term.

For Family Law advice, whether it is Coronavirus related or in respect of general family matters, please contact Rebecca Massam on r.massam@warners.law or telephone 01732 747900 to speak to an expert in Family Law at Warners Solicitors.

This article is for general information only and does not constitute legal or professional advice. Please note that the law may have changed since this article was published.

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