Child contact arrangements during the Covid-19 lockdown in England and Wales
As the nation tuned in to the Prime Minister’s daily briefing on 23 March 2020 and heard the much anticipated announcement of a lockdown, separated parents were left with an added element of potential difficulty: what happens with child contact arrangements?
That same day, the government published guidance entitled ‘Staying at home and away from others (social distancing)’ which was subsequently updated. Within that guidance can be found one solitary sentence on the issue of children moving between the homes of their separated parents and is as follows:
‘Where parents do not live in the same household, children under 18 can be moved between their parents’ homes.’
This was all separated parents had to work with, if they managed to find their way to it in the first place. Nevertheless, the guidance made clear that contact arrangements could continue during the lockdown period. Unfortunately, the Minister for the Cabinet Office, Michael Gove, made contradictory comments in early morning interviews the following day, which led to confusion. Although he corrected himself on Twitter, confirming that the guidance was indeed sound, many parents were left alarmed and in doubt over what they could, or should do.
Helpfully, on 24 March 2020 the President of the Family Division and Head of Family Justice, Sir Andrew McFarlane, released guidance with robust and pragmatic advice to separated parents who have a Child Arrangements Order through the Family Courts. Although aimed at families subject to such Orders, the guidance is nonetheless applicable to families with a more informal agreement in place. McFarlane emphasised the importance of parents communicating, undertaking sensible assessments of the circumstances in both households and acting sensibly and safely in taking decisions. He left a clear warning that any parent who took a unilateral decision to prevent the other parent from spending time with their child, would be scrutinised by the Court if the situation came before them. Ultimately, the health and safety of all involved is key during these times and parents may have to adjust to prioritise this.
Along with government and judicial guidance, CAFCASS (Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service) were also on hand with guidance published on their website. Given the role of CAFCASS as the voice of the child in proceedings, it was not surprising that the tone of their guidance was child-focused and promoting effective co-parenting. Overall, their advice is holistic in approach and goes beyond the perspective of the parent. An interesting and summative quote is this:
‘If there is a Child Arrangements Order in place this should be complied with unless to do so would put your child, or others at risk. This will help your child to feel a sense of consistency, whilst also reassuring them that the parent they don’t always live with is safe and healthy.’
It is hoped that separated parents can call on the guidance and advice available to come to agreement as to how they each spend time with their child during this pandemic. Inevitably, there will be situations where this is impossible, and it would be wise to remember that families going into the lockdown with acrimony rife, will be carrying that through while trying to navigate the added stress of the pandemic. In such instances, family lawyers are here to advise and assist in reaching a sensible way forward, whether that be through negotiations or referrals to mediation or arbitration. An application to the court will always be the last option but invariably, necessary for some families. In times where hearings are being conducted remotely, specialist advice should be taken by parents to ensure their objectives are prioritised and communicated to the judge.