We are living in worrying times and while we are all anxious about the health risks arising from the coronavirus pandemic, there are additional concerns for parents of children. Alongside disruption to schooling and usual routines, there may be additional concerns arising from relationship breakdown, domestic violence or other family disputes.
Social distancing has placed enormous stress and pressure on families and couples. There are increased reports of disputes and domestic violence, and child and welfare professionals are discussing how best to support vulnerable children and families. You should check the Government website (https://www.gov.uk/coronavirus) for the latest guidance in conjunction with this article, as the guidelines on the coronavirus (COVID-19) are changing daily.
Child Arrangements Orders
Family professionals were left adrift for several days after the initial announcement regarding social distancing and lockdown, but clarification has now been provided in relation to Child Arrangements Orders, which can be by clicking here.
Some of the most frequently asked questions are:
Q 1 - During the ‘lockdown’ should my children see their other parent?
Michael Gove MP has confirmed that children can travel between the homes of their parents in accordance with the terms of a Child Arrangements Order, but this should only be undertaken if there is minimal risk to children or vulnerable family members. If you are genuinely concerned for your child’s wellbeing or believe that your child will be at risk if you adhere to the Order, as a parent with Parental Responsibility you can make the decision to suspend direct contact for the time being but you should do everything possible to facilitate indirect contact, such as Facetime, telephone calls or using online tools such as Skype or Zoom.
Ultimately this is a decision for parents to make together, weighing up the safety concerns. If your child is to see their other parent then handovers need be kept to a minimum.
This means you should try and agree with your former partner any changes possible to reduce unnecessary travel. For example, if one parent normally sees their child on a Wednesday afternoon for three hours and a Friday evening for two hours you may wish to change this to five hours occurring on a Friday instead.
It is sensible for both parents to show a degree of flexibility and help ensure their own family and the wider community are kept safe.
Q 2 - I am self-isolating, should my children have contact with their other parent?
The World Health Organisation reports that children’s symptoms to coronavirus tend to be mild, but the UK government guidance states that if you have displayed symptoms of coronavirus everyone living with you must isolate, including children.
If your child is in one of the vulnerable categories, for example they have asthma, then it may be safer for them to isolate with your former partner away from your house.
If this occurs, anyone in your former partner’s home must also isolate. This should be for the duration of the Government’s advised isolation period (typically 14 days, but this can change if they develop symptoms).
This is a tricky decision as, although relocating would reduce the risk if your child has not already contracted the virus, if they do have the virus you could be unnecessarily putting another household at risk.
Q 3 - My former partner is isolating, should my children still see them?
No. Your children should not be exposed to your former partner if they are suspected of having coronavirus or if they are isolating due to being at greater risk of suffering severe symptoms from coronavirus.
This will be a difficult time for many families and children, and where physical contact cannot occur you should maintain contact by telephone or video calling.
Q 4 - Can my children come and live with me if my former partner is isolating, or has coronavirus?
This depends on the circumstances. The Government advice is to isolate whole households, including children, if someone that lives there has coronavirus.
If your child has an underlying condition that makes them more vulnerable to severe symptoms then it may be of benefit to move to reside with you temporarily, provided they are not displaying any symptoms.
You will need the consent of your former partner to any temporary change in residence. If there is a court order in place in relation to your contact arrangements, you may need to take legal advice.
Q 5 - My children are now off school, can I insist that my former partner shares this extra care?
It is best to try and reach an agreement with your former partner over sharing this additional care and helping out with any home schooling. If your former partner refuses then you should contact us for advice on further steps to take.
Q 6 – I have lost my job, how can I continue to pay child maintenance?
If you suffer a cut in your income by up to 25 per cent then the level of child maintenance you pay will reduce. If you are now on the coronavirus job retention scheme your income still may have reduced sufficiently if you normally worked regular overtime or your earnings were over £3,125 per month. You can check the online government calculator (gov.uk/calculate-child-maintenance) to see by how much your payments could reduce.
If you have an informal agreement with your former partner over maintenance, then you should contact them directly to agree the reduced payments. If your maintenance was assessed by Child Maintenance Services, you must contact them to inform directly of the change in your income.
Q 7 – How can I alleviate tensions between myself and my ex-partner?
With the technological advances we have at our disposal it should not be difficult for parents, whether they are separated or living together, to communicate freely and easily. There are numerous co-parenting apps, all of which offer different levels of service, some of which are free and others which have either a set or a variety of paid services. It is well worth considering the use of such apps, especially if you do have difficulties communicating with each other as you are able to address and discuss matters in a neutral setting.
Our present living arrangements are undoubtedly challenging and fraught with emotion, but a co-parenting app can alleviate unnecessary pressures and allow you to work together for the benefit of the children as well as help you, as parents, to rebuild and strengthen your relationship. For a list of some of the top-rated co-parenting apps follow these links:
Q 8 – I have heard courts are shutting down, what happens to my case?
The Courts remain open and are giving priority to critical cases, for example care proceedings and abduction. Cases are being dealt with remotely via telephone, video calling or email. The courts are working urgently on expanding the availability of technology and in the meantime are using facilities such as Skype and Zoom. The Courts hope to minimise disruption to all family cases, but given the speed of these new changes, and depending on witness and client access to remote services, many cases are likely to experience some delays.
Divorces already take place online and it is expected there should be minimal disruption or delay to this, subject to staff shortages due to isolation or illness.
If CAFCASS are involved in your case, they have indicated that they will continue to deliver essential services. Their offices are all now closed, but they intend to work remotely and conduct interviews with parents over video calling if possible.
If an urgent matter arises, for example regarding matrimonial assets or finances, you should contact us urgently as steps can still be taken remotely to raise these issues.
Various police authorities have noted an increase in complaints and reports regarding domestic abuse. Sadly, enforced confinement with family and loved ones can very quickly take a toll, with emotions escalating, fear running rampant and tempers flaring. If you are concerned, worried or experiencing domestic abuse, the most important thing to remember is that help, advice and support is available.
Q 9 - My partner is abusive, and I am worried about isolating together – what help will be available?
If you are in imminent danger of domestic abuse dial 999 and seek assistance from the police. Domestic abuse charities have issued a joint statement outlining their commitment to continue doing everything they can to support survivors and we are also on hand to help assist with any legal orders you may need to protect you. If your need is not urgent or immediate, there are various charities and organisations within your local area that can provide help, guidance and support and there is a free National Domestic Abuse 24 hour Helpline 0808 2000 247 and various websites:
• A unique UK-wide directory of specialist domestic abuse support services with contact details;
• A secure My Journal tool to record incidents of abuse via text, audio, video or photo form, without any of the content being saved on the device itself;
• Questionnaires to assess the safety of a relationship, plus a section on dispelling myths around domestic and sexual abuse;
• Links to further resources and information on topics around domestic abuse.
We understand there is a lot of concern and confusion following self-isolation and lockdown guidelines as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak, especially surrounding family issues. Although we may not physically be working in the office, the majority of Lawcomm staff are working from home and remain on hand to help you with your enquiries and any difficulties that you may be facing, and our essential workers are at the office ensuring the administration runs smoothly. If you require assistance or would like to book a free consultation please contact Sarah on E: Sarah.Lightfoot-Webber@lawcomm.co.uk or T: 01489 864 132
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 on 2 April 2020.