Parenting in Lockdown: Covid19 and “essential travel” – what does it mean for you?

24th March 2020 Family Law

At 8.30pm on 23 March 2020, the Prime Minister delivered an address to the nation. His instruction was simple: we must not leave our homes, unless it is essential, and this can and will be enforced.

At 8.35pm on 23 March 2020, ‘Family Law Twitter’ burst into debate. What does this mean for separated parents, with children who travel between households or otherwise spend time with their parents separately? Often, people will be subject to Court Orders meaning they are duty bound to do so, with breaches enforceable against them. Many parents may have been warned of consequences of fines or imprisonment in the event of non-compliance. It is easy in already anxious times for panic to set in.

That debate subsisted long into the night – with it not being made clear whether contact arrangements must end with children remaining for this ‘lock-down’ period with the parent they are currently with, or whether parents will be given lee-way to travel to facilitate arrangements.

Early morning on 24 March 2020, it appeared to be resolved. The Government updated its guidance (linked here) to clarify that children under the age of 18 may travel between households where parents are separated.

Confusion re-arose with Cabinet minister Michael Gove, appeared on morning television and asserted that this only applies to vulnerable children. Fortunately, he very shortly after clarified his error and confirmed that is not the case.

So, the general position is clear: you can travel to enable children to move between their two homes.

However, we would caution against this being taken as a rule. As ever, every case must turn on its own facts. We are living in times of great uncertainty and there are very real public health concerns, which must be taken seriously.

It is never safe to prioritise routine for children over and above the safety and health of the children and both sides of their family. It is an absolute responsibility on both parents to ensure that they work together as a team – now more so than ever – and take a sensible approach. It can often be challenging for parents to put their own expectations and desires to one side but it is vital that children and the whole family’s health are kept at the forefront. If children cannot travel for health or safety concerns, parents should always use their creativity to make sure that indirect contact is as meaningful as possible. For cases currently, or likely to be in future, before the Family Court, it is likely that the court will be very keen to see parents cooperating in these exceptional times.

This is certainly not a time for tactics. It is a time for recognition of the value of both parents to the wellbeing of a child. But it is also a time to ensure that proper care and cooperation is taken to think, in good faith, about the safety and wellbeing of everyone involved. Flexibility and cooperation to make sure that all arrangements are conducted safely will only be looked upon favourably, especially by the Family Court.

This is such a good opportunity, in fact, for families to build trust by working together in thinking about these points. Perhaps from a time of national crisis and adversity, for some separated families, it may be the start of a positive and constructive future. That can only be in any child’s best interests.

In summary, each case must be assessed individually to look at the risks and benefits of any given arrangement – parents must work together to keep children and both households safe and well and should use this as a guiding factor in what the arrangements are any given day or week, remembering that for children, consistency of seeing parents can be really important at a time like this. If it is not possible, creative use of calls and video calls can make those indirect interactions more meaningful. Think story time, exercises, games. If that can be supported by both parents, it is always going to be welcomed by any Court.

Parents may benefit from CAFCASS’ guidance on how to handle children arrangements in the current climate. That can be found here.

However, in the event that any questions or uncertainty arise, please do not hesitate to contact the team here at JMW Solicitors. COVID-19 will not stop us from helping our clients – old or new – from navigating these very difficult questions. 

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Joe Ailion is a Solicitor located in Manchesterin our Family department

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