The social distancing measures announced by Government yesterday (23 March) are necessarily stringent in order to contain and reduce the spread of coronavirus, to protect the NHS and save lives.
There will inevitably be a small number of special circumstances when the rules need to afford some flexibility, and Cabinet minister Michael Gove confirmed today that children under the age of 18 years from separated families CAN move between their parents’ households to facilitate contact.
The important message is that contact can and should be maintained during the lock-down.
Some of the recurring questions that we are already responding to in respect of contact are detailed below:
1. My former partner is using the coronavirus as an excuse to block contact, what can I do?
Contact should be maintained –that means continuing to comply with the provisions of any Court Order that says that a child must be made available for contact. If you do not have such an Order, or your former partner still won’t comply, then you can apply to the Court to enforce/obtain an Order. The Courts are still open, but operating through ‘virtual’ Hearings by phone, so the support of the Court is still available. Mediators are also offering ‘virtual’ mediation sessions via Skype/Facetime and by telephone, which might assist in breaking the deadlock. Finally, your solicitor can help by simply writing to your former partner and reminding them of their obligations.
2. My child is displaying the symptoms of coronavirus – can contact go ahead?
The Government has not clarified this, but their advice is that if someone in your household has symptoms they should self-isolate for seven days, and those living with them for 14 days. It must therefore be assumed that a child should not travel between households if they are showing symptoms for at least seven days, and the parent they are with and who is self-isolating, should not deliver or collect them from contact during their own self-isolation. If it is another member of your household that has the symptoms then your child should self-isolate for 14 days.
As soon as the self-isolation period has elapsed contact should recommence as normal. When carrying out handovers, maintain two meters distance from your former partner.
If you do have to suspend contact then, to calm the waters, you may want to offer to make your child available to your former partner for a little longer than usual if your child has missed out on contact due to self-isolation. Also, ensure you maintain contact whilst self-isolating with the help of technology - see point 4 below.
3. I know my former partner will not attempt home-schooling whilst our children are with them, and I worry about the quality of overall care they will get.
Contact should be maintained – if you have genuine concerns that your children will be put in a harmful situation, where their basic needs will not be met, then you will need to apply your judgement and possibly suspend contact. If you choose to do this, you should communicate why you are suspending contact and state what alternatives you can offer (see point 4 below). Acting in the best interests of a child must always take precedence. However, remember that if you fail to make your children available, your former partner has remedies available to them as set out in point 1 above.
4. What options are there if face to face contact has to be temporarily suspended or it is normally supervised?
Every effort should be made to maintain the relationship between children and their parents. If face to face contact cannot take place then it should be facilitated through Skype/Facetime or similar. In addition, telephone contact should be offered. Ideally set times and days should be agreed as children do well with routines and it will ensure your child is ready to sit and chat to their other parent. If your child is able to, then perhaps they could email their parent and/or write them a letter, prepare them a card, which can be shared by taking a photo of it and then sending it electronically.
5. I am finding it hard to communicate with my former partner regarding making arrangements for our children during lock-down, what can I do?
Mediation is still being offered, so this is an option. Also, online tools such as Our Family Wizard, can offer an online platform to try to improve communication between parents. We as solicitors can write to your former partner with your proposals and negotiate on your behalf. It is always best to have some written record of your efforts to maintain the relationship.
If any of these issues affect you, or you have any other questions that haven’t already been addressed, please get in touch. We are here to support you as normal and can advise you by phone, Facetime or email, so don’t hesitate to get in touch.