In these unsettling times, many parents are feeling a strong sense of fear – fear of the unknown, fears surrounding family finances, fear of getting sick or of loved ones getting sick. Added to this are the underlying fears for many that the other parent will not be making careful decisions, that they might be taking unnecessary risks or that Coronavirus might become an excuse to withhold a child or children. Many parents are experiencing heightened anxiety during these times.
Advice from Government initially wasn’t clear. Michael Gove first told parents that children ought to stay where they currently were. Although this was quickly corrected, this has led to confusion where only his original and uncorrected advice has been shared. Cafcass Government advice to parents is now here and Cafcass advice to parents is here.
There is a presumption that the existing court order or parenting plan reflects a determination that meaningful personal contact with both parents is in the best interests of the child. So, what happens when parents cannot agree or cannot work out how to implement their court under these new circumstances where:
- one parent might have an underlying health concern,
- a family member suspects that they have contracted Covid-19,
- one parent might be a key worker exposed to the virus, or
- a parent who might have become temporarily out of work?
As parents, most issues involving the safety and wellbeing of our children can feel like an emergency, and often this would lead to applications to court. However, Covid-19 has placed the court system under immense pressure, too. Judges, lawyers and litigants in person are having to learn to harness remote technologies and online video conferencing platforms such as Skype, Zoom and sometimes phone calls to conduct trials, and this is significantly adding to the delays experienced in the courts.
So, court proceedings in times of a pandemic are unlikely to offer a timely solution to short term adjustments to contact arrangements which are, in truth, matters for joint decision making between parents. Courts will expect to see parents who are in dispute over Covid-19 arrangements to have each made reasonable efforts to come to mutual decisions, which the Head of the Family Division has made clear here, as above.
So, parenting orders are still in effect, term time arrangements still stand even when the children are absent from school and the expectation is that parents will work together to try to implement their court order or parenting plan, in the interest of their children’s wellbeing.
However, if you can’t manage to agree matters, mediation can support you to reach an agreement. Mediators can respond quickly and can work with you online to reach agreements that a court would take weeks if not months to hear and conclude. Mediators are skilled at supporting you to work out what the issue is and how to come up with a joint response that works for each of you. Parents who would not normally need the support of a mediator and parents who ‘parallel parent’ and have little contact with one another could find mediation a useful tool to manage these unusual circumstances. Mediation works for different families at different points along their timeline. If mediation wasn’t right for you when you separated, perhaps it would now work for you in coming up with your family’s response to the global pandemic.