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Coronavirus - Tees Law answers your child arrangement order questions

At a time when businesses and individuals are struggling under the impact of the global coronavirus outbreak, many businesses are concerned with how they will stay afloat amid forced closures and plummeting demand. Meanwhile, employees are seeking information on the support measures available to help them pay their bills, and keep food on the table for their families, if they are unable or compelled not to work.

With schools now closed until further notice, separated parents may also be wondering what this means for any childcare arrangements that are in place, particularly if one or both co-parents are what has been termed a 'key worker'.

Tees’ expert employment and family law teams are on hand to provide the most up-to-date guidance on how businesses, individuals and families can access the support they need to see them through the crisis.

Clare Pilsworth, partner at Tees. Picture: Stephen Bond
Clare Pilsworth, partner at Tees. Picture: Stephen Bond

Here, the firm answers questions on coronavirus and whether a child arrangement order can be changed...

Will the lockdown prevent me from seeing my child?

No. The Government has given full guidance on staying at home and away from others, but it has also set out some exceptions to those people told to stay at home. One of these provisions covers leaving your home for any medical need, as well as to provide care or to help a vulnerable person.

The Government has since clarified that children under the age of 18 are considered to fall within these exceptions to staying at home for the express purpose of moving between their parents' homes. It should be noted that these movements should be limited to only that which is necessary.

This makes it clear that the usual contact arrangements that you and your co-parent have regarding your children can (and should) continue.

Do I need to change my child arrangements due to coronavirus?

If you and your co-parent are both well, there is nothing to prevent the normal arrangements largely continuing, albeit with added precautions.

If you feel that your current arrangement involves extensive movement between households, you and your co-parent should try and come to an agreement that involves limited travel between households. There may be other changes that you want to make, which are considered below.

It's always preferable, where possible, to come to an agreement with your co-parent as to how arrangements should continue. That being said, every situation is different and agreeing new arrangements with your co-parent may not be easy or possible. If you cannot agree, the Court Order will continue to have effect.

Can I change contact and visitation arrangements from those set out in the Court Order?

Child arrangements can be informally agreed between separated parents as well as being Court ordered. The arrangements will cover two key aspects:

1. Who your child is to live with, and for which nights;

2. How often they stay overnight with the other parent.

If you have not yet agreed on child arrangements with your co-parent, please contact us and we can advise you on the best way forward.

What are my rights as a parent during the crisis?

Whatever the agreement that you and your co-parent have in place, it's especially important in these difficult times to ensure that your child's welfare is your first and foremost consideration. This includes making sure that they see both parents regularly - by phone or video call and, where possible, in person - as well as their extended families. Your child's wellbeing is paramount and takes precedence over any wishes a parent has in the eyes of the Court.

If we agree, can we change the arrangements set out in the Court Order?

Yes. The Court Order can be varied if both co-parents agree. This could prove useful in a situation such as the coronavirus outbreak, where different arrangements may need to be made.

What if I or my co-parent is experiencing symptoms?

Government advice has changed and now stipulates that everyone is now to stay at home except for a limited number of reasons, and must maintain social distancing.

Additionally, the Government is still advising that, if someone in your household presents symptoms of coronavirus, the entire household must self-isolate for 14 days. If this becomes necessary, the importance of regular video chats or phone calls cannot be stressed highly enough, to ensure both co-parents maintain contact with the child. After the expiry of the self-isolation period, contact can continue and your children can move between households again.

Should my child come to live with me instead, if my co-parent is vulnerable and at higher risk from coronavirus?

If you are better placed to look after your child should your co-parent become ill, you can change the arrangements. However, both co-parents must agree and you must put the welfare of your child first. There is nothing to prevent your child living with you while your co-parent is ill, even if you have a Court Order in effect; this is because Court Orders can be changed if both parties agree. If you do take over primary care for your child, then you and your child will both need to self-isolate for 14 days in line with Government advice, because you will have been in contact with someone with COVID-19.

What if myself or my co-parent is a 'key worker'?

With the schools now largely closed, the Government is encouraging some to remain open with a skeleton staff in place to take care of the children of key workers such as NHS staff, supermarket delivery drivers, police, etc. If your co-parent is a key worker and you are working at home, you may want to arrange for your child to live with you during this time. For example, if you are concerned that they may be at high risk of contracting coronavirus while out at work, you may think it is safer to care for your child because you are largely at home.

What if we cannot stick to the childcare agreement due to illness?

If maintaining your routine becomes impossible due to illness, then the welfare of your child when will be the top priority when trying to organise new arrangements. This is the basic principle that a Court would apply. The Court would also expect you to follow Government coronavirus guidelines as to what is deemed safe in terms of an individual's movements during this period.

What if we don't agree?

If you have a Court Order in place and cannot come to an agreement regarding who should take over the child's care if the other co-parent became ill, then the Court Order will continue to have effect until such time that a further Court Order is put in place.

What should I do if the Court Order sets out the amount of time my child should spend with the other parent?

You need to maintain the pattern set out by the Court Order, provided you can do so safely within the Government's coronavirus guidelines.

Now the schools are closed, what should I do if the Court Order sets out different arrangements for term time and holiday time?

You and your co-parent can try to come to an agreement using your own definition of 'school hours' and holiday/term time. Many headteachers have been sharing their plans to continue education through social media or online classes. Ask your child's teacher for further information on this point. Similarly, many teachers have been offering assistance with home schooling through social media. As a result, there will still be some definition between term time and holiday time, although it seems the precise timings will be largely down to each household.

It also follows that your child's school hours will be the same. Instead of your child learning at school, they will be sitting at the kitchen table doing remote schoolwork during their normal school hours and on the usual days. This will help you replicate the pattern that was agreed by the Court, even though your child is not at school.

Now the schools are closed, what should I do if the Court Order sets out who is picking up my child from school?

Similarly, if the agreement is that your co-parent picks them up after school on a day when they are due to stay with that parent, you could suggest that your co-parent comes to your home to pick them up in the same way.

Entertaining your children during the coronavirus crisis

If you normally take your children out for contact sessions or overnight stays, make sure that all activities are mindful of the current social distancing recommendations. You should follow Government guidance on this point and ensure your child is undertaking activities safely.

Appropriate contact sessions could include using your daily exercise period (set out in recent Government advice), or, if you live nearby, taking your child back to your home for the duration of the contact session.

How can my child spend time with elderly relatives while they are isolated due to coronavirus?

One of the challenges of co-parenting ensuring that both of your extended families are regularly involved in your child's life. However, you may need to explain to your children that your older relatives should not be visiting them right now for safety reasons due to coronavirus. However, it's important, both for your children and your extended family, to keep in regular contact. This is where video chat software, such as Skype, Facetime or Zoom, can come in very useful and you should make every effort to use this kind of technology to keep in touch.

Will school fees be refunded for the duration of closure?

This is largely dependent on what is set out in the school contract. You should also check whether you have school fees insurance. Speak to your insurance company to see if you are entitled to claim any money back. It may also depend upon the virtual school arrangements each individual school may make in order to continue their obligation of educating your child.

Temporary changes

These restrictions will probably be difficult and often frustrating for all concerned. However, it's reassuring to remember that all constraints placed on your normal child arrangements are temporary. Once the Government restrictions related to coronavirus are lifted, your arrangements should return to those that were in place prior to this difficult period.

Clare Pilsworth is a Partner at Tees and heads the Family Law team in Cambridge. Clare can be contacted on 01223 702444 or at clare.pilsworth@teeslaw.com.

Here at Tees, we are fully equipped to work from home and are ready to assist you throughout the COVID-19 situation. Our solicitors all have experience of flexible working and remain in regular contact through Skype, email, phone and regular conference calls. Likewise, we remain available for appointments via whichever contact method best suits you. We know our clients are worried and will have questions; we can provide the answers. Just call us on 0800 013 1165, or contact your usual Tees adviser either by phone or email. Visit www.teeslaw.com for more information.

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Tees Law

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