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Increased measures implemented by the government to protect against Coronavirus now not only include self-isolation in the event of you or a member of your household showing symptoms, but also now include lockdown of each household meaning every citizen must comply with measures in place and not leave their house unless for one of four reasons: –
- Shopping for basic necessities, for example food and medicine, which must be as infrequent as possible
- One form of exercise a day, for example a run, walk or cycle – alone or with members of your household
- Any medical need or to provide care or to help a vulnerable person
- Travelling to and from work, but only where this absolutely cannot be done from home
These measures must be followed by everyone and the relevant authorities, including the police, have been given powers to enforce them, including through fines and dispersing gatherings.
What does this mean for separated families?
The measures put in place over the last few weeks have inevitably put a strain on UK families with shared child care arrangements. This strain is only likely to increase with the new lockdown measures imposed by the government on 23rd March. This is likely to cause widespread confusion about what the arrangements between separated parents should be, particularly without any assistance from the courts.
The government has sought to clarify a little further in relation to the only four reasons you are allowed to leave your home. Under reason 3, as set out above, the government has now confirmed that, where applicable, this includes moving children under 18 years between their parents’ homes.
We have already had enquiries coming in from anxious parents, both from those worried about breaking court orders and those concerned that the current warnings to self-isolate and lock down are going to be used to flout the current arrangements either agreed between parents or court ordered.
In light of the recent changes and the governments revised guidance, where there are court orders in place or prior agreements regarding arrangements, they should be adhered to as much as possible. Parents will need to maintain the usual pattern of child arrangements, providing they can do so safely and within the government’s Coronavirus guidelines. Inevitably, parents may need to agree several changes over time if symptoms do unfortunately arise or if the government guidance changes.
How long will it last?
Arrangements should be kept constantly under review at all times, whatever arrangements are in place. It is especially important in these difficult times that your child’s welfare is of first and foremost consideration. The child’s wellbeing is paramount and takes precedence over any other parental rights in the eyes of the court. Therefore if some parents use this current situation, which let’s face it, is difficult enough, as an opportunity to manipulate or flout the court order or previously agreed arrangements, this is unlikely to do them any favours in the eyes of a court in the long-run and in reality, will be more damaging to a child than allowing the relationship with both parents to continue.
CAFCASS offered advice prior to lockdown being announced which made it clear that in their view, wherever possible, parents should stick to agreed and ordered child arrangements. Taking into account the new guidelines issued by the government it is difficult to see how this has changed. However, the main problem we envisage is where contact handovers take place in public e.g to protect parents in domestic violence situations.
Careful consideration will have to be given to where and how contact handovers should take place especially if the address of a vulnerable parent is not disclosed. Our advice to you is that if you are not having to self-isolate due to you or a member of your household showing symptoms of Covid-19, then in order to follow the government protocol, where possible, parents should find a suitable open space and transfer the child between cars, without interaction with each other and whilst fully observing the social distancing rules.
Alternatively, one parent should be responsible for collecting and returning a child to the other parent’s property, if that is the existing arrangement, and that parent should drop the child outside and watch them enter the property whilst not entering the property themselves or coming within a 2 meter radius of the front door meaning that both parents are therefore observing the social distancing rules. Once in the property, the child’s clothes should be changed and washed and the child’s hands washed immediately.
Contact Centres and supervised contact
Another problem we foresee is in relation to contact which takes place in a dedicated centre, as these will now undoubtedly be closed, if they have not been closed already. Sadly, in that situation, it is clear that contact will have to stop until the centre reopens and it is currently unclear how long lock down will last.
Contact will also have to stop if contact is to be supervised by a third party, who is not a member of your household.
What if either I or my child have symptoms of Covid19?
Child arrangements can only continue if you are not faced with that child or a member of your household showing symptoms of Coronavirus. If that happens, regardless of any agreed or court-ordered arrangements in place, the child will have to remain in self-isolation with that parent, meaning they will not have direct contact with the other parent, pending the self-isolation period coming to an end. At present, the self-isolation period is 14 days if someone in the household shows symptoms.
The isolation period is of course longer if a person is considered high risk and at present, the guidance states that high risk people should limit all contact with others for up to 12 weeks. Difficult decisions may have to be made if a parent, child or member of the household is considered high risk and it is not considered safe for a child to pass between two homes for fear that it will increase the risk of transferring the virus to a vulnerable person.
What if I cannot see my child?
If you are faced with not seeing your child in person during self-isolation, whether it be for 14 days or longer, then this will undoubtedly be a very difficult, upsetting and stressful time.
However, indirect contact such as Face time, Skype or Zoom becomes more important than ever.
Try using apps like Caribu https://caribu.com/ to interact with your children, or online games where you can challenge each other to an educational game over the internet.
It should be considered that no time restrictions be placed on indirect contact so that it allows interaction to be maintained as meaningfully as possible between the child and the parent with whom they are currently not spending direct time. Whilst this may be an unsettling time for parents, it is of course also a very unsettling and confusing time for children and not being permitted to spend time with each parent is likely to be confusing for them. Being able to see and speak to the other parent, even indirectly, will almost certainly be considered in the child’s best interests.
If I cannot see my child will I be compensated later?
If the child ends up spending more time with the other parent due to self-isolation than he or she would do under your normal routine, then we do not believe that such changes would give merit to a shift in the status quo of child arrangements in the long term. We expect it to be unlikely that a parent spending more time with a child during self-isolation than they would normally, would give the other parent grounds to apply for more time with the child following isolation coming to an end.
However, you should consider, where appropriate and where possible, for time missed to be made up between the child and the parent with whom they have not spent time during self-isolation. Some of our clients have already decided that if self-isolation is implemented for 14 days with one parent, the other parent will then benefit from additional time in the following 14 day period before existing child arrangements return to normal. Where this is not possible, convenient or considered in the child’s best interests, following self-isolation arrangements should return immediately to normal as per any pre-existing agreed or court ordered arrangements.
Whilst the implications for non-compliance with agreed and ordered arrangements remains unclear, and it may be difficult to seek input from the court at this time due to lockdown, it is highly unlikely in our view that a court would seek to enforce arrangements or punish parents for non-compliance with a court order when they have whole-heartedly followed the government guidelines. It is therefore likely to follow that consequences will be enforced where parents take unreasonable advantage of this unprecedented, unsettling and difficult time for the whole world to flout the child arrangements in place.
- Advice on how to talk to your children about the virus https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/schools-childcare/talking-with-children.html
- Direct information from the government as it happens https://www.gov.uk/coronavirus
- An app allowing you to spend meaningful time with your children over the phone/internet https://caribu.com/
Disclaimer: This post represents our best interpretation of HM Government’s guidance at the time of our writing. Both the content of the post and the guidance it is based upon will be subject to change. We will do all we can to keep our clients updated through our website posts.