There are many separated families who will have concerns relating to a child being able to move between homes of separated parents in light of the ‘stay at home’ rules.
Some separated families may have informal arrangements between them as to when their child spends time with each parent. Others may have a court order in place.
Will the ‘stay at home’ rules prevent a child spending time with their parent under a current agreement or court order?
Each of us has been confined to our homes during this outbreak, unless absolutely necessary. The Government provided some exceptions, for example, a medical need or to buy essential groceries and medicines.
Recently the Government announced some further plans to lift the lockdown, including allowing those who cannot work from home to return to work, and we can leave our homes for an unlimited amount of exercise. We can also see one person from another household in an outdoor space.
On 24 March the Government also permitted children to leave their homes to move from one parent’s home to another. Michael Gove, cabinet minister, clarified that children under the age of 18 can leave their homes to go to the other parent’s home. This clarity will come as a great relief to many separated parents, as it means that a child can still go to a non-resident parent’s home and they may continue to spend time together.
As long as it is safe to do so, the usual contact arrangements should continue.
If there is a Court Order in place, can parents agree to change arrangements?
If there is a need to change the arrangements, and there is a Court Order in place, we have received guidance from the President of the Family Division to state that the order can be changed, if both parties agree. Ideally, that agreed change should be recorded in writing.
What if parents cannot agree/
In these extremely difficult times, one parent may not feel that it is safe for the child to leave the home. For example, if there is a vulnerable person within the household. If the other parent does not agree, the court will consider whether changing the terms of the current Court Order was reasonable.
The welfare of the child is paramount and, therefore, if circumstances do need to change in light of this emergency situation, it is hoped that this can be agreed between the co-parents. If one parent were to become ill, or they themselves are vulnerable, it may be that the child, during this time, lives with the non-resident parent and the Court Order could be varied by agreement.
hat is happening at the Family Court to ensure that hearings in relation to children are still going ahead?
The judges and court staff are working tirelessly in order to ensure that families who need the court’s assistance are still able to access it. Bundles of papers which are usually sent to court as hard copies are now accepted as electronic copies. Hearings can proceed using methods such as telephone calls, Skype and emails. This is a new way of working and court staff, solicitors and families will need to work together.
Are there any other exceptions to the ‘stay at home’ rules which may affect some families?
The Government has also allowed a further exception in relation to a person who may be subject to domestic violence. No person may leave his or her home without a reasonable excuse, and a reasonable excuse is to avoid injury or illness, or to escape the risk of harm. Therefore, if someone is at risk of suffering domestic abuse, they are able to leave their home without fear of breaching the rules.
We shall keep considering any further guidance which the Government issues in relation to child arrangements. These pressures will be temporary and, once the restrictions are lifted, arrangements should return to those that were in place prior to the Covid-19 outbreak.