The Family Court has provided guidance for parents concerned about complying with child arrangement orders (CAOs) during the coronavirus crisis.
Alongside the Stay at Home Rules issued on 23 March 2020, the Government provided specific guidance relating to child arrangement orders, stating that “where parents do not live in the same household, children under 18 can be moved between their parents’ homes”.
Parents and their children must continue to adhere to the lockdown requirements. This means not being outside the home for any purpose other than essential shopping, daily exercise, medical need or attending essential work.
On 24 March, the Family Court provided further general child arrangement order advice for parents.
The advice note has been published to provide general guidance since the circumstances of each child, arrangement and family will differ. Where parents have concerns during the crisis, advice should be sought specific to their child’s case.
Family Court advice
Following the Government’s decision to place the UK on lockdown from 23 March 2020, parents expressed concerns about how restrictions on travel, movement and personal contact will affect their ability to continue a child arrangement order safely and in line with emergency public health measures.
While the general advice is that children are able to travel between their parents’ homes as an exemption to the general lockdown, it does not mean they must move between homes.
In light of the unprecedented circumstances, it is for both parents to exercise their parental responsibility and assess the circumstances.
Parents are encouraged to communicate concerns and solutions with each other, and come to a decision taking into account the health of the child, their own health and that of their extended family, the risk of infection and the presence of any vulnerable individuals in either household.
The advice note calls on parents to act sensibly and safely when making decisions about their child’s care.
Parents must also follow public health guidance on staying safe and reducing the spread of infection through good hygiene practices. This means handovers should be limited as much as possible.
Temporarily changing a child arrangement order
Ordinarily, varying a child arrangement order would require an application to be made to the court.
In its coronavirus advice, however, the Family Court has stated parents are able to make temporary changes to a child arrangement order, provided both parents agree. It is advisable to keep a record of the changes to the agreement, whether by an email or text message exchange with the other parent.
Disagreements over changes to an arrangement
If parents are not able to agree on changing the arrangement order, and one parent is sufficiently concerned that continuing to comply with the arrangements would be against current public health advice, that parent may exercise their parental responsibility and make changes to ensure arrangements remain safe.
Such action may, however, be subject to scrutiny in any subsequent Family Court matter, and the court will assess whether each parents’ conduct was reasonable and sensible in light of the rules in place at the time and any other relevant considerations.
If an arrangement is changed temporarily due to the coronavirus outbreak, whether by mutual agreement or otherwise, the advice note calls for the ‘spirit’ of the order to be preserved.
This means that if the child does not spend time with one parent as they would ordinarily under the arrangement order, contact should be maintained between the child and the other parent through safe, alternative arrangements such as Skype, social media or by telephone.