Family Court Child Arrangement Orders - Guide for Parents During the Pandemic
There are many parents who will be concerned about how to deal with arrangements for their children to see the other parent during the difficulties created by the Coronavirus crisis. Where a Child Arrangements Order (CAO) has been made by the Family Court, then the parents can be very anxious about their ability to meet and fulfil the requirements of those Orders safely.
We are of course in challenging times which could not be foreseen at the time such Orders were made by the Court. There is therefore no precedent for how these issues should be tackled.
A short statement has been issued by the Right Honourable Sir Andrew McFarlane, who is President of the Family Division and Head of Family Justice. In it he makes it clear that he is intending to offer advice, but clearly circumstances of each child and family will differ, and as such, what he has said should be viewed in the most general terms.
Broadly the points that he has made are as follows:-
• He has reiterated that parental responsibility for a child who is the subject of a CAO made by the Family Court rests with the child’s parents, and not with the Court.
• Clearly the country is in the middle of a public health crisis which has never been experienced before. Therefore he has stated that the expectation must be that parents will act sensibly and safely when making decisions regarding arrangements for their children, and in particular, when considering where and with whom the child spends time. He has pointed out that parents must abide by the “Rules on Staying at Home and Away from Others” issued by the Government and to bear in mind the guidance issued by Public Health England to reduce the spread of infection.
• The Stay at Home Rules have made the general position clear. It is no longer permitted for a person, and this would include a child, to be outside their home for any purpose, other than essential shopping, daily exercise, medical needs, or attending essential work.
• Government guidance issued alongside the Stay at Home Rules on the 23rd March deals specifically with Child Contact Arrangements. It says where parents do not live in the same household, children under 18 can move between their parents’ homes.
• This creates an exception to the general mandatory “Stay at Home” requirement. It does not, however, mean that children must be moved between homes. That decision must be for the parents to make. It is up to them to make a sensible assessment of the particular circumstances of their situation and to take into account issues such as the child’s health, the risk of infection and the presence of any vulnerable individuals in one household, or the other.
• The general point has been made that the best way to deal with these problematic times will be for the parents to communicate with each other about their worries and what they think would be a good practical solution. Even if some parents think it is safe for contact to take place, it might be completely reasonable for the other parent to be genuinely worried about this.
• Where parents acting in agreement conclude that the arrangements set out in a CAO should be temporarily varied they are free to do so. The point has been made that it would be sensible, for example, for each parent to record in a note, email, or text message sent to each other what has been agreed.
• Where parents do not agree to vary the arrangements set out in a CAO but one parent is sufficiently concerned that complying with the CAO arrangements would be against current Public Health England advice, then that parent may vary the arrangement to one that they consider to be safe. If, after the event, the actions of a parent acting in this way is questioned by the other in the Family Court, the Court is likely to look at whether or not each parent acted reasonably and sensibly.
• Where either as a result of an agreement, or as a consequence of one parent on their own varying the arrangements a child does not get to spend time with the other parent, then the Courts will expect alternative arrangements to be made to establish and maintain regular contact between the child and the other parent. Examples of this are for there to be contact remotely by Facetime, WhatsApp, Skype, Zoom, or other video connections, or if that is not possible, by telephone.
The key message that has come through is that where Coronavirus restrictions cause the agreed Court Orders to be varied, the “spirit” nevertheless should be delivered by making safe, alternative arrangements for the child.
The above provides general guidance only. If you, as a parent, require any additional information, or input from RDC, then please do not hesitate to contact Judith Fitzpatrick at firstname.lastname@example.org Whilst we as a Company are temporarily unable to offer a face to face meeting, we have staff working remotely and can continue to offer the same level of professional service as before to our existing and future clients.