Lucinda Holliday, head of family & divorce at Blaser Mills Law, provides guidance to separated parents when deciding whether their child should continue face-to-face contact with both parents throughout the coronavirus lockdown
The government’s coronavirus lockdown has seen strict measures implemented across the UK, with people only allowed to leave their homes for a few essential reasons – one being to transport children between separated parents’ households.
Most people have never faced such restrictions before, and separated and divorced parents are met with uncertainty around how child arrangements should work, as well as worry about whether moving a child between two households could put the child or other family members at risk.
Here are some of the main things parents need to consider when deciding whether their child should continue face-to-face contact with both parents.
Initial government guidance released on 23rd March stated people were no longer permitted to be outside their home for any reason, other than for essential shopping, daily exercise, medical needs or attending work if it was not possible to work from home. This led to confusion for separated parents around how they should approach their child arrangements and pre-arranged contact hours.
Further guidance later stated children under the age of 18 could be moved between homes to ensure their time with both parents could continue. This left some parents concerned that their child may be at further risk of becoming exposed to coronavirus after spending time in two households. Many have also questioned whether a child should be moving between two households if one household is home to a vulnerable person, or if someone living there is a key worker who is being exposed to COVID-19. This poses the question, should a parent be forced to continue contact if they have any of these concerns?
It is important to remember the responsibility for a child throughout the current pandemic still lies with those who have parental responsibility for a child, this is usually their parents. The situation separated parents find themselves in is unprecedented and, although there is still the expectation that contact with both parents should continue, parents should act responsibly to ensure their child remains safe.
If a parent feels their child could be at risk by spending time with the other parent, they are entitled to exercise their parental responsibility and, if necessary, stop the child from visiting the other parent’s home.
Parents should think carefully when deciding whether the child is to spend time between both parental homes, and must fully consider the child’s health, their risk of infection and if they are likely to come into contact with vulnerable individuals.
The best interest of the child
Issues may arise if one parent does not want their child to spend time with the other, and some may use COVID-19 as an excuse to stop contact between their child and their ex-partner. However, it is vital that parents forget their own feelings at this time and remain focused on what is in the best interest of the child. Usually, this is to have a relationship with both of their parents.
Co-parenting is extremely important during this period, and parents are encouraged to communicate with one another about any worries they may have about their child. The two should work together to create an agreed, practical and sensible solution, whilst always keeping the child’s needs at the centre of any decision.
Parents need to work together to ensure their child can maintain a strong and healthy relationship with them both. If spending time with both parents during the pandemic is not in the child’s best interests, or if a child moving between two households puts others at risk, alternative forms of contact should be explored. Children should still have regular contact with both parents, even if it is remotely. Indirect contact such as phone or video calls can allow the child to spend time with the other parent if direct contact is not safe.
Working collaboratively as parents is extremely important during this difficult time, but in certain personal circumstances communication can be difficult and it may not be possible for parents to reach an agreement between themselves.
If communication breaks down, parents should consider looking into mediation. The meeting can take place via video and allows parents to negotiate child arrangements with a qualified mediator who is professionally trained and can help manage the discussion and facilitate an agreement.
If a parent feels it is necessary to do so, they can also make an application to the court. The Family Court is still operating, but hearings are likely to take place via a phone call rather than in person.
It’s also worth keeping in mind that there could be evidential challenges in proving whether parental concerns over COVID-19 are genuine. If a parent is found to manipulate the current pandemic for their own gain, the judge will be critical of this.
If parents of a child subject to a child arrangement order cannot come to an agreement on what is best for their child, they should speak to an experienced legal advisor who will be able to guide them further, as well as explore an application to the court if necessary.