Stop Press :Contact and Coronavirus
In the last 2 weeks every single order I have drafted in private law Children Act proceedings has been impacted by the current COVID-19 outbreak. This has ranged from litigants failing to attend due to self-isolation; difficulties effecting personal service of documents; contact centres closing and parents refusing to adhere to contact arrangements on public health grounds.
A major concern for parents has been whether or not direct contact should continue in light of the recent ‘lock-down’. Thankfully, the President of the Family Division has issued some clear, sensible and pragmatic guidance on compliance with Child Arrangements Order (‘CAO’):
The President highlights the government guidance which parallels the ‘Stay At Home Rules’ issued on 23rd March 2020, which state that:
“Where parents do not live in the same household, children under 18 can move between their parents’ homes”.
But whilst this is a clear exception to the ‘stay at home’ requirement, this does not mean children must move between homes. Parents are encouraged to exercise their sensible judgement in the current circumstances, including taking into consideration the child’s present health, the risk of infection and the presence of any recognised vulnerable individuals in one household or the other.
The President goes on to suggest that the best way to deal with these difficulties will be: “for parents to communicate with one another about their worries, and what they think would be a good, practical solution.”
The more seasoned and sceptical practitioners among us will immediately recognise the potential irony in this statement. If parents were capable of communicating with one another about sensitive issues, such as their own worries and concerns, they probably wouldn’t have had to seek a CAO in the first place!
In any case, the President suggests that in the absence of any agreement on whether to vary the arrangements set out in a CAO, a parent who: “is sufficiently concerned that complying with the CAO arrangements would be against the current [public health advice], that parent may exercise their parental responsibility and vary the arrangements to one they consider to be safe”. If necessary, the court can consider whether any potential breach of the CAO was “reasonable and sensible in the light of the official advice and the Stay At Home Rules in place at the time, together with any specific evidence relating to the child or family”.
However, whilst Coronavirus restrictions may cause the letter of a court order to be varied, the President makes it clear that the spirit of the order should nevertheless be delivered by making safe alternative arrangements for the child. Professionals should therefore advise clients accordingly.
In these truly unprecedented times it is reassuring to witness some great acts of humanity, empathy and togetherness. Many people have been able to put their differences aside and instead focus on the real issues we face as a species. However, there are also those that haven’t been able to do so… and we may all have some of those people as clients. There are those that insist direct contact should go ahead regardless of the risk to their child or their wider family, and there are those who use the Stay At Home Rules as an excuse to wilfully obstruct contact. It will of course be down to us to guide our clients through these difficult issues.
We have all no doubt experienced another significant problem caused by the outbreak of COVID-19: the closure of contact centres. This will clearly affect large numbers of children and parents who will be not be able to have contact, potentially for a long time.
However, there is a solution at hand!!! With their usual impressive ingenuity and foresight, Chances Gives Choices contact centre are now offering to facilitate video contact throughout the ‘lock-down’ period!
This contact will be facilitated via video conferencing platforms in very much the same way that we currently conduct court hearings. The contact centre will organise the contact session and will dial-up the parties. Contact centre staff will supervise the entire session and can terminate the session in the event that anything inappropriate takes place. They will also be able to provide contact notes in the usual way, if required.
It is understood that use of this facility will cost £25 per 30 minute contact session, with a £5 one-off administrative fee being charged at referral.
Anyone wishing to use this facility should contact Chances Gives Choices via the messaging service on their website:
Although the centre is currently only offering this service whilst the Stay At Home Rules remain in place, one can anticipate a continued demand for it in future. It would be a very useful addition to the other great services already offered by Chances Gives Choices, particularly as a graduated step to reintroduce contact, or where practical restrictions make face-to-face contact impossible, such as where a parent/child has difficulty getting to a contact centre on a regular basis.
What is clear is that the Coronavirus is forcing us to find new and innovative ways to work as a profession. We may inadvertently find these innovations are of great benefit to the Family Court and to the profession as a whole, once we emerge from these very difficult times.
Stay safe; stay positive.