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Family issues and COVID-19: legal FAQs
Q: What is the guidance for parents who are separated in relation to children moving from one household to another?
A: One of the exceptions to the general rule of ‘stay at home’ is that children under the age of 18 of separated parents can move between two households. Sir Andrew McFarlane, president of the Family Court, has clarified this to mean that the movement of children may take place but this does not mean that it must happen.
Open communication between parents is key and the health of you and your children is paramount during this pandemic. Before making a decision, parents must assess all the circumstances in both households and whether contact can safely take place.
Q. I have a child in my house who has underlying health issues and vulnerable, but I have a Court order for my other child to spend time with his father? Must I make him available? If I don’t, will I get in to trouble?
A: At this time, the health of everyone is a priority. If there’s someone in your household who is classified as vulnerable or has an underlying health issues and they are following the guidance of isolating for a period of 12 weeks, a child who moves from household to household may pose a risk to that vulnerable child/adult. You should talk to the other parent and see whether the arrangements can be varied for the time being. If the other parent does not agree and you feel that you are putting the vulnerable person at unnecessary risk, you can unilaterally vary the order as the guidance is clear in that “children may move from household to household” and not “must move”.
You should also consider alternative methods of contact if face-to-face contact cannot take place. These options include video calls via Skype, Facetime, Zoom and WhatsApp video so that the relationship between the child and the other parent can continue.
The other parent may make an application for enforcement because you have not made the child available for contact. If this were to happen, the Court would assess whether you acted sensibly and reasonably in light of the advice and the specific circumstances.
If there is a Court order in place and you decide to stop face-to-face contact during this period, make sure that you communicate this in plenty of time to the other parent. Explain the circumstances and offer alternative methods of contact with the child. You might want to consider offering face to face contact at a later date to make up for the lost time.
Q. Can I travel to go and collect my child? Will I be breaking the law?
A: The Government has confirmed that travel from one parent to another for the purposes of contact for children under the age of 18 taking place is classified as essential travel.
You should take a copy of the child arrangements order if you have one. If you don’t, you should take a copy of any written agreement you may have with you in the event that you are stopped.
Try to avoid using public transport where possible and please follow the social distancing rules.
Q. My former partner is a key worker. I’m concerned that if my child goes to contact, they are at more risk of catching the infection.
A. The child should still be made available to your former partner regardless of the nature of their job. Unless your child or someone in the household is showing symptoms and they need to be isolating, contact should go ahead.
Q. I’m concerned that if I let my child go for contact with the other parent during lockdown, they may not be returned to me. Is there anything I can do?
A. Usual contact arrangements should continue unless there is a medical reason why contact should not happen.
If the other parent withholds the child without valid reason, then you would need to make an emergency application to the Court, either to enforce any child arrangements order or to obtain a child arrangements order for the immediate return of a child.
Q. I’ve been furloughed and am required to provide child maintenance. Is there anything I can do?
A. You will need to contact the Child Maintenance Service (CMS) about your particular situation. However, if your income has decreased, the CMS may carry out a re-calculation and your payments should reduce accordingly.
Q. My marriage has broken down. Can I begin divorce proceedings during the lockdown?
A. Yes you can still apply for a divorce online or through the post.
To discuss any of these questions in further detail, or to raise any other family law issues you may have, please do not hesitate to get in touch – we are contactable on our usual numbers and email addresses.