Complying with Child Contact Orders/Minutes of Agreement during COVID-19 Lockdown
On the evening of Monday 23rd March 2020, the Prime Minister issued a statement effectively placing the entire UK in lockdown for at least three weeks. People can only leave their homes for four specific reasons: (i) for essential journeys such as to get groceries/medicines; (ii) once a day for daily exercise provided you are alone or only with household members; (iii) to carry out essential tasks for vulnerable people or for medical appointments; and (iv) leaving home for work if a key worker/absolutely necessary. No clarity was provided as to children under 18 who are resident with one parent but have contact with another parent, (although ministers have now given some guidance) either as agreed between the parties themselves, formalised by a Minute of Agreement or by way of a court order.
What guidance is available?
Whilst there is still little guidance, ministers and the family courts in England and Wales have issued a statement trying to provide some clarity. Given the lockdown applies to the whole UK it is likely this guidance from the family courts can be followed in Scotland. Of course it can be imagined that in a very acrimonious situation a child may have been with the parent who does not have residency of that child on Monday evening and is using the lockdown as a reason not to return the child to the parent with residency. Equally parents with residency may be refusing to allow the child to see the other parent who has a contact order.
The guidance issued to date (and of course this has not yet been tested in the courts and is unlikely to be unless there is a risk to the child or a child has not been returned to a parent who has residency) seems to indicate that provided there is: (i) not a vulnerable person in the household; and (ii) no one in the household is showing symptoms or has been diagnosed and therefore the household is not self-isolating as such, then a child can still continue to have contact with both parents. It is arguable that a child having contact with both parents during this period is essential as the essence of all child contact cases is that decisions are made in the best interests of the child. Only in exceptional circumstances is it not in a child’s best interest to have some contact with both parents.
What happens where third parties/contact centres are normally involved?
Of course there is a practical difficulty where contact must be supervised, whether that be at a contact centre or supervised by an agreed third party. Contact centres are not open during this time and it is also unlikely that a third party would be able to supervise the contact as at the very least they would require to be in the household where supervised contact is taking place (there may be some rare cases where the person who the parties have agreed to supervise contact lives with the party exercising contact). Additionally where parties have agreed a neutral public place for hand over and/or handover is carried out by a third party, such as grandparents then it may not be possible for contact to take place unless the parties are prepared to agree alternative arrangements directly between them. Of course this is unlikely to be possible where supervised contact orders have been made given that they are made to protect the child.
How can we help
Our view is that wherever possible, provided vulnerable people are not put at risk and supervised contact orders are not being broken, contact between children and both parents should continue to be facilitated as far as practical as this would appear to be in the child’s best interests. Please contact our Wick office on 01955 604188 should you wish to discuss your child’s contact arrangements during this time.