As the number of coronavirus (Covid-19) sufferers continues to rise rapidly in the UK, the nation’s schools have now been closed, except for children of designated key workers, to help curb the spread of the virus. This unprecedented situation has left many separated parents wondering what effect this might have on child contact arrangements they have in place with their children. Fiona Yellowlees, family law solicitor at WBW Solicitors in Newton Abbot, explains.
Many parents will have an agreement in place which sets out who their child lives with, when they should spend time with the other parent and other issues concerning the child’s welfare. This agreement could have been reached informally or where parents could not agree, through a Child Arrangements Order issued by a court.
Naturally, the extraordinary circumstances we currently find ourselves in – with most children now off school – means some terms of the agreement may need to be renegotiated. Again, these should be agreed between the two of you if possible; the Court are encouraging this. Otherwise an application may need to be made to the court to amend the terms of the Child Arrangements Order.
Before you start discussions about future arrangements, it is important to remember that the welfare of the child must be put first. If it is impossible for you and your former partner to come to an agreement it is worth considering mediation.
This involves both parties discussing matters in the presence of a trained mediator, who is independent and will not take sides in any dispute. Their aim is to help parents reach an agreement over contact without having to head to the courts. Such meetings can be held virtually using technology to minimise the risk of coronavirus infection.
If you and your partner are both well and the other parent is able to look after your child while they are off school, there is no reason why your child contact arrangements cannot continue largely as they were, as long as you can do so safely while following the Government’s coronavirus guidelines.
If you or your former partner develop Covid-19 symptoms while the child is staying with one of you, under current Government guidelines the entire household must self-isolate for 14 days. This means the child may need to stay with whichever parent is showing symptoms for this required period. If this situation arises, contact with the other parent would need to be temporarily put on hold and contact would need to be maintained through phone calls or video chats until normal contact can be resumed.
If your former partner becomes ill with the coronavirus, it is possible for you to take the child back to your home, with the other parent’s agreement. You and your child would then be required to self-isolate for 14 days because you would obviously have been in contact with someone who has been exposed to Covid-19. If there is a court order for contact arrangements in place you should take legal advice.
If your child usually lives with the other parent, and your former partner is a key worker and you are able to work from home, you may want to arrange for your child to come and live with you until the coronavirus crisis subsides – particularly if the child would otherwise be alone at home. Again, you will need the agreement of your former partner for this to happen or ask the court for permission to temporarily vary the terms of the Child Arrangements Order. In reaching a decision, the court will put the interests of the child first.
These are extraordinary and unsettling times and before you attempt to come up with new contact arrangements for your child you are strongly advised to seek advice from a family law expert who can advise you of your rights and lay out the options open to you.