This guidance is liable to change and you should review the Government Website on a regular basis.
For separated parents, maintaining contact arrangements with their child/children can be tricky at the best of times, but this has been worsened this year due to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic and lockdown restrictions.
During both lockdowns, the three tier system and at other times since the outbreak of Covid-19, the Government has allowed children to move between homes if their parents are separated.
However, in certain instances, such as where a child or the parent with whom the child does not live with has to self-isolate, the Government has stated that contact arrangements should not take place.
Below, I have provided some general advice on child contact arrangements during the coronavirus pandemic.
Covid-19 preventing contact arrangements taking place
If the coronavirus is being used by a parent to prevent their child having contact with the other parent when it is reasonable for them to be able to see their child, this needs to be addressed urgently as the current fluctuating restrictions brought about by the pandemic could continue for many months. If this happens, it is essential that independent legal advice is sought.
Conversely, if a parent is being put under pressure to make their child available to spend time with the other parent, going against the restrictions that are in place at the time (e.g. one of the parents or the child is having to self-isolate), then it is essential that independent legal advice is also obtained.
Government guidance on child contact arrangements during the coronavirus lockdown
Previously published guidance by the Government in relation to child contact arrangements has not changed since it was first published. The advice issued via the Courts and Judiciary website stated:
- “Parental responsibility for a child who is the subject of a Child Arrangements Order [‘CAO’] made by the Family Court rests with the child’s parents and not with the court.
- Parents must abide by the ‘Rules on Staying at Home and Away from Others’ issued by the government on 23 March [‘the Stay at Home Rules’].
- 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 need or attending essential work.
- Government guidance issued alongside the Stay at Home Rules on 23rd March deals specifically with child contact arrangements. It says:
- Where parents do not live in the same household, children under 18 can be moved between their parents’ homes.
- This establishes an exception to the mandatory ‘stay at home’ requirement; it does not, however, mean that children must be moved between homes. The decision whether a child is to move between parental homes is for the child’s parents to make after a sensible assessment of the circumstances, including the child’s present health, the risk of infection and the presence of any recognised vulnerable individuals in one household or the other.
- 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 advice, then that parent may exercise their parental responsibility and vary the arrangement to one that they consider to be safe.
- Where, either as a result of parental agreement or as a result of one parent on their own varying the arrangements, a child does not get to spend time with the other parent as set down in the CAO, the courts will expect alternative arrangements to be made to establish and maintain regular contact between the child and the other parent within the Stay at Home Rules, for example remotely – by Face-Time, WhatsApp Face-Time, Skype, Zoom or other video connection or, if that is not possible, by telephone.
As a result, separated parents should continue to abide with previously agreed contact arrangements in respect of their child. The family Courts are likely to take a very dim view of any parents who use Covid-19 as an excuse not to comply with existing child arrangement orders without good cause.
Each case will turn on its own facts and it is therefore important that parents in such situation take their own independent legal advice, should they find themselves in that situation, as what may be a legitimate reason in one case could well be just an excuse in another. An experienced family lawyer will know the difference and be able to advise you of the approach the Court is likely to take.
If the parents have recently separated and/or haven’t formally agreed child contact arrangements with their former partner, then it is also vital to obtain specialist legal advice.
As a result of the Government guidance, which was published at the start of the outbreak of the coronavirus, even though a parent may have a Court order to say where their child lives and the time they spend with the other parent, it is crucial that both parents abide by the Covid-19 guidance in place at that time and not place either parent, the child or anyone with whom they come into contact with at risk of infection.
Safety has to come first and parents should work together to come to an amicable arrangement for their child. As mentioned above, if face-to-face contact cannot take place, for one reason or another, then alternative arrangements should be made instead to allow a parent to see their child, e.g. FaceTime, Skype or telephone calls. These options should be encouraged in cases where a parent lives overseas and regularly travels to the UK to see their child, or where a child and/or their parent (who could be their primary caregiver or their parent with contact rights) are displaying symptoms associated with Covid-19 or have tested positive for the virus.
Changing child contact arrangements due to the coronavirus pandemic
If there is a specific reason that previously agreed contact arrangements are not taking place then it is always preferable for both parents to come to an amicable agreement as to how contact arrangements should continue. A previously agreed Court order can be varied by agreement of both parents.
However, depending on the circumstances and the relationship between the co-parents, varying a previously agreed Court order may be difficult. In such cases, it is advised to obtain legal advice.
Child contact arrangements when a parent and/or child has Covid-19 symptoms, has tested positive for the coronavirus or been told to self-isolate
If a parent, child or someone in their household has Covid-19 symptoms or has tested positive for the virus, each member of that household must self-isolate for either 10 or 14 days. As a result, previously agreed contact arrangements need to be suspended and cannot take place.
If this happens, the parent with whom the child lives with should make sure that regular video or phone calls take place with the other parent, to ensure that contact continues to take place. Once the required period of self-isolation has ended, contact arrangements can re-commence, unless the other parent is having to self-isolate.
If the parent, with whom the child lives with, has been informed to self-isolate due to coming into contact with a person who has tested positive for Covid-19, but does not display any symptoms and/or has not tested positive for the virus themselves, then contact arrangements between the child and other parent can take place as the child is not permitted to self-isolate (unless they have come into contact with the same person who has tested positive, are displaying any symptoms or have received a positive test). The parent who lives with the child must adhere to the self-isolation restrictions when contact takes place.
However, if the child has been told to isolate as they have come into contact with someone who has a confirmed case of the virus (e.g. at school or nursery), regardless of whether they have tested positive and/or are displaying any Covid-19 symptoms themselves, then contact arrangements cannot go ahead during the period of self-isolation. This is also the case for the parent who does not live with the child.