Yesterday evening the Prime Minister addressed the nation and enforced what has been dubbed a ‘lock down.’ But what does this mean in real terms? It means that we should only be leaving our homes for the following limited purposes:
- Shopping for necessities, infrequently as possible;
- One form of exercise a day alone or with members of your own family;
- Any medical need or to provide care to a vulnerable person, and;
- Travelling to and from a place of work.
The Prime Minister also stipulated that members of different households should avoid contact and should not meet other family members who do not live with them. Understandably this as raised a number of concerns amongst separated families where children visit parents who do not live in their household. Equally concerns have been raised where child arrangements orders are in place and the obligations under those orders during the crisis.
Separated Families and child arrangements
This morning it has been clarified by Michael Gove that separated families should continue with their child arrangements with the parent that lives outside the household. That said, families should still be aware of the rules around self-isolation if they have any of the symptoms of Coronanvirus. That is: a new continuous cough and a high temperature. If they have either of those symptoms, they should self-isolate for 7 days or if they live with someone who does have symptoms, then they should isolate for 14 days. This includes isolating from their children who live in another household.
Even if no symptoms are apparent in either family, many parents are going to be worried about exposing their children to any risk either perceived or real. Therefore, it is vital that parents use their own judgment and remain flexible to changing guidelines. If parents are happy to continue with child arrangements, then do so but if not then it is essential that they try and work together to explore other solutions i.e. communicating via telephone or using online applications. There are many smart phone applications on the market which allow video calling between groups of people: Adding wider family members to such applications might be a great way of keeping in touch; utilising smart tv functions could also be an option so families can view each other on large screen. Perhaps even eating together via video link: Be inventive! With today’s technology there are many ways of keeping in touch and there’s fun to be had whilst doing it.
Child Arrangement Orders
Undoubtedly parents who are subject of a child arrangement order are going to be concerned about whether they will be in breach the order if they are self-isolating with their children or are concerned about their children’s safety and would prefer to keep them at home until further guidance form the government is forthcoming.
In the first instance, Parents or anyone else that is subject to the Order should comply with it as they could risk enforcement proceedings for being in breach. That said, a breach may be made where there is a reasonable excuse. A reasonable excuse is that, “…you believed on reasonable grounds that what you did (the actions constituting the breach/contravention) of the court Order, was only as long as it was necessary to protect your own or the Child (or other person’s) health or safety.” This of course would not prevent the other party from making an application for enforcement, but it is likely under the circumstances that isolating due to the virus would constitute a reasonable excuse. However, parents should ensure that where relationships are strained that they do not use the current ‘lock down’ as an excuse to disallow their chidlren from visiting the other parent. Clearly the government announcement advising that children should see their parent living in another household would likely be used as evidence by the absent parent that the excuse was not reasonable. Parents should therefore be highly cautious in their decision making and only prevent their children visiting the other parent where absolutely necessary.
At present most family face to face hearings have been ceased however a number are still going ahead via video link and telephone where possible. Therefore, if a parent was the subject of an emergency application for enforcement it is likely that this would go ahead even in the current crisis. Parents should therefore be aware of the implications of being in breach of a court order without reasonable excuse.
We are living in unprecedented times and for many including myself this is a time of worry and concern for both the physical and emotional health well-being of our loved ones. We will come through this, but it is vital that we all where possible work together to keep safe. Undoubtedly periods of prolonged isolation are going to exacerbate many of the challenges that we already face on a daily basis. And I am sure in the coming months there is going to be an unfortunate increase in family proceedings where matters have come to a head during the crisis. Rest assured, Wollens as business is here to support our clients, so if you require any family law advice now or in the future please do get in touch.
This article is only accurate at the time of drafting. Readers should check current guidelines after the 24 March 2020 to ensure there has not been any further updates from the government or Ministry of Justice.