Co-parenting during the Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak

The government has issued a national lockdown to help tackle the coronavirus pandemic, with people only being allowed to leave their homes for limited purposes and all public gatherings of more than two people being banned (save for where the gathering is of a group of people who live together, or for essential work purposes). But what does this mean for separated parents?

The government has now clarified that where parents do not live in the same household, children under 18 can be moved between their parents’ homes, and based on the current government guidance this would typically be deemed a legitimate journey. If there is a child arrangements order in place regulating where a child lives and when they spend time with each parent, this should therefore be followed, unless this would put your child or others at risk.

During these uncertain times, the status quo will help maintain stability so far as possible and structure in your children’s lives. There are, however, some circumstances, when children’s time with one parent may be disrupted, for example:

  • Due to medical issues/self-isolation justifications for keeping your child in one household for a period of time;
  • If the time with one of the parents is to be formally supervised and the establishment and staff available to provide such supervision is closed in light of government guidelines, or if time is supported by a third party such as a grandparent who is at increased risk of severe illness from coronavirus;
  • Where the time that a child is to spend with one of their parents is in the community, supported by a third party, outside of the household. This is particularly relevant where the third party may have been a grandparent. There is also the issue that the government has stated that you should only leave your home for one of four reasons: 
    • to purchase food and necessities;
    • to meet medical or care needs;
    • traveling to work if absolutely necessary; and
    • exercising alone or with members of your household (once per day).

We await further guidance from the government on these key areas.

If you are unable to maintain your child’s normal arrangements with their other parent during the current coronavirus pandemic, then it important to seek to maintain as much of a routine as possible. There are other ways in which separated parents can spend time with their children even if in some circumstances, they cannot physically be with them such as through alternative platforms like Skype and Facetime and Zoom, the Facebook Portal, a watch party etc. It is also important to consider how any missed time may be made up after restrictions are lifted, and it may help alleviate tension if you are able to think ahead and put a plan together with the other parent. Above everything else, remember that safety is key, for parents and children, whatever the current arrangements for them are.

If you are currently involved in court proceedings, then the Family Procedure Rules 2010 (FPR) provides for the use of remote hearings in appropriate cases. Sir Andrew McFarlane, (President of the Family Division and Head of Family Justice), has issued guidance stating that the default position during this time is that hearings should be remote hearings, i.e. take place via email, telephone, video or Skype. This applies to interim hearings, such as direction hearings, and also final hearings where evidence is to be given, as FPR r4.1(3)(e) provides that the court may “hold a hearing and receive evidence by telephone or by using any other method of direct oral communication” and r22.3 provides that “The court may allow a witness to give evidence through a video link or by other means.

Family cases are heard in private, which means that only the parties, their legal representatives, or other third parties specifically authorised by the court may attend a hearing. For remote hearings, it should be ensured that only those who would ordinarily be able to attend the physical court room is privy to the remote court room. Therefore find a private space to attend the remote hearing, use headphones and be particularly vigilant that children cannot overhear the discussions taking place.

These are unprecedented times and family practitioners are having to react quickly and adapt advice on a daily basis according to any government updates and the rapidly changing situation. Hopefully in the coming days the government will provide more clarity for separated parents during this time.