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How To Manage Co-Parenting During Lockdown

During these unprecedented times, with lockdown continuing and uncertainty about how or when it will cease, it may be harder than ever to co-operate with an ex-partner over contact with your child(ren). In these circumstances, how to manage co-parenting during lockdown effectively is important for you and your child(ren).

Of course, it very much depends on the relationship that exists between the parents and their desire to work together for the benefit of their children, but it takes two, and the sad truth is that not all resident parents actively support or encourage regular contact with the non-resident parent. In extreme cases, there may be ‘intractable hostility’ between the parents or evidence of ‘parental alienation’, and it is here that here that external help, support, guidance and, if necessary, Court Orders may be required.

Even during the current climate, the Court is still able to make Orders determining disputes about children, although hearings may have to take place by way of video link or telephone hearing.

As a general principle, children are entitled to see both of their parents during lockdown and that is the expectation – co-parenting during lockdown should still continue. This was confirmed in The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) Regulations 2020 introduced on 26th March 2020 and the following exceptions were made to the guidelines applicable to lockdown:

  • Where agreed, or where Court ordered, the non-resident parent may continue to have contact with their child[ren] and or have them live with him or her for the agreed or Court ordered specified time.   Furthermore, either parent may leave their home in order to facilitate such contact, for example for collection and return of the children, whether this is from each other’s homes or at an agreed or court ordered meeting place.

On 24th March 2020 the President of the Family Division and Head of Family Justice issued further Guidance on Compliance with Family Court Child Arrangement Orders. Whilst this was aimed at cases in which there is a Child Arrangements Order already in place, the following certainly serve as useful principles to apply to contact arrangements and managing co-parenting during lockdown generally:

  • Para 6.  Where parents, acting in agreement, exercise their parental responsibility to conclude that the arrangements set out in a Child Arrangements Order should be temporarily varied, they are free to do so.  We would suggest that each parent record such an agreement in a note, email or text message sent to each other.
  • Para 7. Where parents do not agree to vary the arrangements set out in a Child Arrangements Order, but one parent is sufficiently concerned that complying with the Child Arrangements Order arrangements would be against current Public Health advice, then that parent may exercise their parental responsibility and vary the arrangement to one that they consider to be safe.   If, after the event, the actions of a parent acting on their own in this way are questioned by the other parent in the Family Court, the Court is likely to look to see whether each parent acted reasonably and sensibly in the light of the official advice in place at that time, together with any specific evidence relating to the child or family.
  • Para 8.  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 Child Arrangements Order, 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.

The key message is that, where Coronavirus restrictions cause the letter of a Court Order to be varied, the spirit of the Order should nevertheless be delivered by making safe alternative arrangements for the child.  On a practical level, we would recommend that you make a full note of any variation agreed, and when it was agreed, and confirm it in either an email or text message to the other parent so there is written evidence in the event this is disputed in the future .

If co-parenting during lockdown has broken down, and one parent who has the care of the child[ren] refuses to either facilitate the collection or the return of the child[ren] to the other parent on the basis of current Public Health advice rules, whether they were acting reasonably may be for a Court to determine at a date in the future.  Again, a clear note of what decision has been made and confirmation via text or email would be sensible in the event this matter does or may need future court determination.   Again, there may be good reasons to vary contact and alternatives, such as telephone / Skype / FaceTime/ WhatsApp and/or text and email should be encouraged.

If you suspect that a resident parent is failing to act reasonably and relying on the public health advice inappropriately in order to obstruct you from having contact with your child[ren], then you should consider issuing an application.   The Court will be able to determine matters on behalf of a child where parents are unable to reach agreement.

However, Court should be the last resort. Mediation may be a more cost-effective and constructive approach to the resolution of a dispute between parents.  Whilst face to face mediation is not currently available, it can take place over the phone or via Skype/ Facetime or Whats App.  Even before lockdown, mediation via these channels was permitted and qualified Mediators are familiar with this practice.

Another out of Court option is Family Arbitration. This is a voluntary method of resolving disputes in relation to children in a binding manner through the joint appointment of a private Judge (the Arbitrator), who is trained and accredited by IFLA (the Institute of Family Law Arbitrators).  Arbitration can take place at any stage and can be used to determine a discrete dispute or to resolve the whole dispute.

In addition, you may also like to visit the Cafcass website, which provides practical assistance and resources to separated parents.

If you need any further advice or have any questions about how to manage co-parenting during lockdown, then the team at Hawkins Family Law are here should you need us to help navigate these unchartered waters.

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