Pump Court Chambers

Contact and the Coronavirus: COVID-19 and its Impact on Separated Families

Blog 30th March 2020
Eleanor Bruce

About 7 ½ weeks after the first reported coronavirus case in the UK, and after some 6,000 confirmed cases, the Prime Minister addressed the nation confirming that in an attempt to halt the spread of the worldwide pandemic the public were being told to stay at home in order to stop the disease spreading.  He stated that people should only leave their home for the following purposes:

  • Shopping for basic necessities as infrequently as possible;
  • One form of exercise a day, for example a run, walk or cycle alone or with members of your household;
  • Any medical need to provide care or provide help to a vulnerable person; and
  • Travelling to and from work, but only where this is absolutely necessary and cannot be done from home.

We were told not to meet friends or family members who do not live in the same household and that we should not be going shopping except for food and medicine and even this should be done as little as possible.

Less than 12 hours later, Michael Gove was interviewed on ITV’s Good Morning Britain and was asked about children moving between the households of separated parents.  His initial response was that children should not move between the households of separated parents:

“It is very, very difficult but no you should not.  Children should stay in the household they are currently in, we should not have children moving between households.  I know this is incredibly difficult this is a time of […] an emotionally fraught time and a difficult one, wherever possible if there can be contact through social media or non-physical contact that should carry on […]”

It was brought to his attention that the footnote to “any medical need” in the Government Guidance provided an exemption to children under 18 moving between their parent’s homes, however his view, at that stage remained unchanged save where there were limited, specific exceptions.  

Later that morning Mr Gove was interviewed on the BBC Breakfast programme and his view had changed.  He made it clear that children could move between the homes of separated parents and accepted that his position earlier in the morning had not been clear.

If Michael Gove, a senior member of the government involved in implementing these new measures, was confused as to what was permitted under the new guidelines, then parents may be forgiven for not being sure what to do in these unprecedented times.  

So what is the sensible approach to take in light of this new government guidance?  It has now been clarified that the guidance does permit children to move between the homes of their parents.

Here is some practical guidance which you should have mind whether you have an existing court order in place or if you think you may need to seek one:

  • The default position is that the arrangements for children who spend time with both parents in different households can and should continue;
  • In situations where in view of COVID-19 and movement restrictions, you are of the view this is not practical, in the first instance you should contact the other parent and discuss with them your concerns and try to agree temporary alternative arrangements;
  • You may want to think about trying to ensure that children still see both parents by using social media, and in particular video calls to ensure that their routine remains as uninterrupted as possible;
  • Where you cannot reach agreement, you may need to make an application to the Court under the Children Act 1989 for a child arrangements order. This can be done by filling in a C100 form online;
  • You should also use the C100 form if you already have a court order in place and want to apply to vary that order;
  • Whilst ordinarily there would be around a 6 week wait for the Court to list your first hearing, it is important to realise that at the moment, waiting times are likely to be far longer than this, as the Courts restrict which hearings are being held “in person”.  It is therefore important that you take advice and issue proceedings promptly and also that you are pro-active in contacting the Court and asking for your first hearing to be dealt with remotely either by telephone or video link. Things you can do to make this easier are:
    • Making it clear on your C100 that you would be happy for the Court to have a telephone or video hearing;
    • Following up with the Court by email and confirming that you consider a remote hearing appropriate;
    • Encouraging your legal adviser to do the same

Whilst the Courts are currently familiarising themselves with the multiple IT platforms available to conduct these hearings, it is anticipated that delays will be far longer than usual.  You may therefore want to consider mediation or arbitration as a faster alternative that can be equally effective in resolving disputes.

Eleanor Bruce specialises in private law children matters and financial remedy proceedings. For further information on Eleanor’s practice please contact our clerking team. Eleanor also accepts instructions on a Direct Access basis.  

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