What is the guidance around child arrangement orders during lockdown?

As the third national lockdown continues, millions of families are faced with the uncertainty of knowing how they will juggle home life and work commitments. It brings further opportunity for debate and argument as to how children of separated families will continue to see each of their parents.

It is worth reminding ourselves that whilst everyone must respect and comply with the new government guidelines (and their various combinations of support and childcare bubbles that families can utilise for additional support), the President of the Family Division released guidance last March on how court orders should be complied with. There is yet to be any departure from this, and although the majority of separated families will not have the benefit of a court order to turn to, the sentiment is the same for all.

What is the President of the Family Division’s guidance?

The headlines to the statement include clarification and expectations that parents must act sensibly and safely when making decision regarding their children.

Parents must continue to abide by the current rules, any local variations that may follow, any tiered system that might be implemented again, and follow all guidance updated by Public Health England and Public Health Wales.

It is considered an exception to the stay at home requirement since where parents do not live in the same household, that children under 18 can be moved between their parents home. The important distinction is that guidance is not that children must be moved between homes but rather the decision as to whether they should move is one that should fall to the parents after a sensible assessment of the circumstances. This should include the child’s present health, risk of infection and presence of any recognised vulnerable individuals from one household to the other.

Varying child arrangement orders during lockdown

The President encouraged parents to try to communicate with one another about their worries to try to come up with a good practical solution. The President suggested that it would be sensible for each parent to record any agreement in a note, email or a text message.

Where parents cannot agree and where one parent is so concerned that complying with an order would be against current PHE/PHW advice, then that parent may exercise their Parental Responsibility and vary the arrangement to one that they consider safe. If the other parent then questions those actions and subsequently brings Court proceedings to consider the issue, the Court is likely to consider whether each parent acted reasonably and sensibly in light of official advice.

The Court will expect arrangements to be made to establish and maintain regular contact between children and the other parent for example by using FaceTime, WhatsApp, Skype, Zoom or other video connections in addition to telephone contact, particularly where direct contact might not be possible. Please see our previous article for tips on staying in touch.

If the letter of a Court order has to be unavoidably varied, the spirit of the order should be complied with nevertheless to ensure that safe alternative arrangements for the children can be made.

If you are faced with a situation concerning the above issues, then please contact us.