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New Zealand: inter-bubble parenting during Covid-19 lockdown

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Anita Chan QC

Dunedin, New Zealand

anita@princeschambers.net

 

New Zealand has been hailed as one of the ‘early-mover nations’ after achieving early success in the fight against Covid-19. Others include Australia, Austria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Greece, Israel, Norway and Singapore.

The New Zealand government moved quickly and decisively in the early days of the virus’s impact on the country: ‘We must go hard and we must go early’ as a ‘team of five million’ was Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s call to action, which resonated with Kiwis.

On 23 March 2020, New Zealanders were given 48 hours’ notice to go into Covid-19 Alert Level 4 lockdown, the most restrictive of New Zealand’s four-tiered alert system, for a minimum of four weeks. We were urged by the Prime Minister, ‘Don’t just flatten the curve; squash it!’

At Alert Level 4, all New Zealanders apart from essential workers (including healthcare workers and workers in the food supply chain) were required to stay at home and to remain in their respective household ‘bubbles’. The lights went out in every restaurant, pub, café and non-essential business in New Zealand, as well as at schools and other educational institutions.

Courts and justice were deemed an essential service, which meant that lawyers were deemed essential workers. However, the courts only heard priority proceedings affecting the liberty of an individual, personal safety and wellbeing, or proceedings that were time-critical. These cases were heard, largely using remote participation, including AVL (audio-visual link) and telephone, or on the papers.

Not surprisingly, particular issues arose during lockdown for families. It was a time when many parents were unable to work, or worse, had lost their jobs or businesses and were suffering significant stress as a result. Grandparents and other extended family members who might normally have provided practical support were in many instances unable to do so because they inhabited a different bubble. Many children and vulnerable parties found themselves locked in a bubble with stressed and, in some instances, violent individuals.

There was widespread confusion about how shared child-care arrangements should operate. Guidelines issued by Principal Family Court Judge Moran offered broad assistance but left many questions unanswered. The guidelines permitted a child to move between two household bubbles, but only if no other bubble breaches were involved eg, a step-sibling also moving in and out of one of the bubbles.

Furthermore, a child could only move between parents’ bubbles as long as both bubbles were located within the same geographical community ie, no more than an hour’s travel between homes. As a result, many children spent the entire lockdown period with one parent.

The Principal Family Court Judge emphasised that children are precious and that, more than ever, the nationwide lockdown was a time to focus on their wellbeing and, in particular, their safety. Parents were urged to make decisions that were in the overall best interests of their children and reminded that Alert Level 4 rules were intentionally restrictive to stop the spread of Covid-19. The global pandemic should not be seen as an opportunity for parents to unilaterally change established care arrangements without cause or to otherwise behave in a manner inconsistent with the child’s best interests or any court-ordered care arrangements.

Many lawyers were able to assist their clients to reach agreement based on these guidelines. The availability of online FDR (Family Dispute Resolution) mediation also helped. However, as might be expected, many high-conflict parents found it difficult to resolve their co-parenting disputes during lockdown.

Concerns that family violence would increase in Level 4 lockdown were promptly confirmed. New Zealand Police figures showed a 22 per cent increase in investigations after the first week of lockdown, the Women’s Refuge showed a 20 per cent increase in calls related to domestic violence and domestic abuse charity, Shine noted a three-fold increase in the number of reported high risk incidents, from two per week to six or seven.

Counsellors across New Zealand are reporting a spike in people seeking relationship counselling post Level 4 lockdown.

At the time of writing this article, New Zealand has moved to Alert Level 2. Under Level 2, children are back at school, household bubbles no longer need to be maintained, children can travel freely and parenting arrangements have largely returned to normal, while still following public health measures.

New Zealand’s ‘go hard and go early’ strategy seems to have paid off. For now, Covid-19 appears to have been eliminated in New Zealand. At 1 June 2020, there have been no new Covid-19 cases over the past ten days. There is only one remaining active Covid-19 case out of New Zealand’s total of 1,504 confirmed and probable cases. There have been only 22 deaths, mostly of older people.

Our most famous Kiwi, Sir Edmund Hillary said of his pioneer ascent of Mount Everest: ‘We knocked the b------ off.’ We may be able to say the same of Covid-19, nevertheless Jacinda Ardern has warned: ‘We are halfway down Everest, but the descent is known to be even more dangerous.’

Even if we have beaten Covid-19, its effects will undoubtedly linger. New Zealand is set to descend into deep economic recession in the near future. Families will continue to suffer under ongoing financial and emotional stress for the foreseeable future. It seems to be an unfortunate reality that family lawyers will see an increased demand for their services as a result.

 

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