Yesterday evening, the government announced more stringent measures to limit the spread of the coronavirus Covid 19 within our communities. These measures have effectively resulted in a lockdown, with the nation being told to stay at home and cease all non-essential travel.
Many separated parents were left confused following this announcement, not knowing whether they could legitimately facilitate contact between their child and the other parent without being in violation of the government guidance.
This morning, Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove clarified that children being taken from one parent’s home to another for contact is permitted during lockdown. The official government guidance states: “Where parents do not live in the same household, children under 18 can be moved between their parent’s home”.
Following this, new guidance which has been provided to family law practitioners in England & Wales which states that “the decision whether a child is to move between parental homes is for the child’s parents to make after a sensible assessment of the circumstances, including the child’s present health, the risk of infection and the presence of any recognised vulnerable individuals in one household or the other.”
This clarification will be welcomed by many coparenting couples who are keen to ensure they act responsibly in facilitating contact to control the spread of the virus. However, other separated parents may be concerned either that the movement of their child between households will increase the risk of infection or that they will not be facilitated direct contact with their children due to concerns about the virus.
Unfortunately, where the law stands in this scenario is unclear. While a resident parent cannot suspend contact solely on the basis that there has been a government lockdown, many parents may seek to suspend contact due to concerns about their child’s safety, their risk of exposure to the virus or alternatively their concern about its potential spread if contact is facilitated. All of these concerns could be considered entirely legitimate in the unprecedented situation we find ourselves in.
I have a Contact Order but am not being permitted contact – what do I do?
If a parent’s contact with their child has been secured by way of a Contact Order, that parent is at liberty to issue contempt proceedings should the Court Order be breached at any time by the other parent. However, in the current circumstances, the Court may not be in a position to deal with such an application and even if it did so it may be difficult for a Court to determine that the breach of the Order was not justifiable in the circumstances.
The guidance released today in England and Wales states that where one parent is sufficiently concerned that complying with a Court Order regarding contact would contravene public health advice, that parent may exercise their parental responsibility and vary the contact arrangement to one that they consider to be safe. The guidance goes on to state that; “If, after the event, the actions of a parent acting on their own in this way are questioned by the other parent in the Family Court, the court is likely to look to see whether each parent acted reasonably and sensibly in the light of the official advice and the Stay at Home Rules in place at that time, together with any specific evidence relating to the child or family.”
These coming weeks and months will be a difficult time for separated parents who are struggling to engage meaningfully with one another to reach agreement with how contact arrangements should work. In the absence of any agreement being reached regarding direct face-to -face contact, all efforts should be made to agree some level of indirect contact via telephone, Facetime or Skype. This level of contact will at the very least allow a child to obtain reassurance and support from both parents at this very uncertain time, as well as ensuring that the parent/child relationship can be maintained, albeit at a distance.