Contact with children in a Covid-19 World
For many of us our daily routines such as commuting to and from work, dropping off and collecting the children from school, visiting friends and family all came to an abrupt halt from the 23rd March 2020. This was the date when the first lockdown commenced. For many separated families, suddenly issues arose with regards to continuing with care arrangements around the child or children of the family, even if there was a Child Arrangement Order in force.
For many, the ability to “get back to normal” seems very uncertain especially since the Government’s new lockdown rules came into force placing towns and cities within a three-tier system with increasing restrictions, and the subsequent announcement of a second lockdown commencing in England on Thursday 5 November 2020.
Since lockdown and despite the restrictions that have been put in place by the Government, children under the age of 18 are considered an exception and can move between households. Of course, it is for those caring for the child who must decide whether it is safe to continue with the care arrangements in place and where necessary come up with alternative arrangements that are safe for the child. For example if a parent, with whom the child does not reside, is considered vulnerable, it may be appropriate to discuss varying contact arrangements, replacing physical contact with online options. However, it is crucial that both parties communicate on these issues and where one takes unilateral action to vary arrangements because of health concerns the courts will look at whether this action was reasonably and sensibly taken. Even if a parent lives in an area under local lockdown, that does not mean that the child cannot visit and transporting the child between households is considered essential travel.
Where there are orders in place such as a Child Arrangement Order, the terms of the orders should still be complied with by the named parties. Any decisions to vary the terms of order should be made jointly, preferably in writing and ensuring that any alternative arrangements are safe for the child.
An example of having to make a change to care arrangements is where collection and/or drop-off take place in a public setting such as outside a school. Arrangements may have to be made for collection and/or drop-off to take place at the homes of those who care for the child, keeping in mind social distancing requirements. If changes to arrangements recorded in an Order cannot be agreed then the decision on whether to apply to the court to seek to vary those arrangements will need to be considered.
With regard to holidays, it is becoming more likely that holidays abroad and even within the UK will need to be put on hold. Perhaps booked holidays will need to be cancelled and discussions had between the parties to ensure lost time is made up in the near future. Should a parent need to quarantine following a holiday, this does not mean that the child cannot stay with them, although if the parent was showing Covid symptoms then it would be sensible to vary the arrangement.
There are those that spend time with a child in a contact centre whether it be for supervised or unsupervised contact. Due to Covid-19, there are centres who have taken the decision to close and this highlights the importance of, where possible, using technology to help an absent party maintain contact with a child.
Where reaching an agreement, with regards to changes to care arrangements in light of Covid-19, seems impossible alternatives to court such as mediation and arbitration are still available.
The key guidance is that generally the need for the child to have access to both parents overrides the rules associated with the pandemic so long as a significant health risk is not posed. As a parent you need to act sensibly and reasonably and communicate with the other parent to ensure they are aware of your concerns and have the opportunity to put their own point of view.
Please note that this article was prepared by Diane Flowers, Family Solicitor, on 19 October 2020 (updated on 2 November 2020) and the rules and the interpretation of the rules for contact may change at short notice. Please call 020 8290 7955 to talk to Diane.