This page contains family law faqs we have received on family related issues as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic.
My child has an underlying health condition. Can they still move between homes during the lockdown?
The President of the Family Division (the most senior family court judge in the country) has issued advice that whilst children can be moved between separated parents, this does not mean that children must be moved between homes. The decision about whether a child is to move between parental homes is for the child’s parents to make in accordance with what they believe is in the best interests of their child. Parents would have to jointly assess their particular circumstances, including the child’s present health (ie if the child has an underlying health condition) and the risk of infection. Each family’s circumstances will be different and it is crucial that parents act reasonably and sensibly in light of the official advice in place at that time and their child’s specific needs in order to avoid the risk of subsequently being criticised by the courts.
In many cases there is an order in force which says which parent the child should be with. Where parents do not agree to vary the arrangements set out in a court order, the President of the Family Division has provided some helpful guidance. The general advice is that if the parent with whom a child lives most of the time is sufficiently concerned that complying with a child arrangement order would be against current public health advice and may put their child’s health at risk, then that parent may exercise their parental responsibility and vary the arrangement to one they consider to be safe for their child. In those circumstances, the courts will expect alternative arrangements to be made to establish and maintain regular contact with the other parent, ie by video connection or, if that is not possible, by telephone.
We don’t have an official childcare arrangement in place. What should we do while the Coronavirus is present?
Unless there are justified medical/self-isolation issues, children should maintain their usual routine of spending time with each of their parents. Maintaining a sense of routine will help your child to feel safe and secure. Therefore, the same informal arrangements that have been in place until should continue, as much as possible, unless both parents agree different temporary arrangements. If the parents cannot reach an agreement and one parent believes the other has acted unreasonably, then it would be possible to apply to the courts for a judge to make a decision.
I have lost my job due to COVID-19. What should I do about maintenance payments?
If you can no longer afford to pay maintenance to your ex-husband or wife in line with the terms of a court order, then it might be sensible to try to agree with your ex to temporarily reduce the level of payments or even to stop them altogether. It would be sensible to make an informal written record of any agreement reached in order to avoid any future misunderstanding. If it is impossible to reach an agreement, then it might be necessary to apply to the court to reduce the order. Technically, until the order has been varied by the court, you will continue to be liable to pay spousal maintenance at the same amount, so it is crucial that this is dealt with promptly.
If you are paying child support pursuant to an assessment, then you should contact the child maintenance service. Their web-site says that if you have lost your job or you are currently without an income due to self-isolation etc, you should contact them by telephone. Whilst they do not give their number, it is 0800 171 2345. If They will not accept notice of this sort of change on-line, so it is important that you call them, although you may have to face lengthy queues. See our separate blog “Coronavirus; unable to make maintenance payments?” for more information.
Are the family courts closed due to Coronavirus?
Although the family courts are not closed, the Coronavirus outbreak does mean that the courts have had to change how they work and there will be delays in some cases. Most hearings are considered suitable to be conducted remotely and if the necessary arrangements can be made, then those hearings will go ahead without any physical presence at court. Remote hearings could therefore take place via Skype, telephone or video link. Some cases may be considered suitable for paper hearings and the court file will be referred to a judge where necessary to consider the documents and make directions for the next steps in the court process. We are finding that the courts are being pro-active about this, and listing short telephone hearings at which the necessary arrangements can be discussed and agreed.
What are the access arrangements for children living apart from one parent where that parent may be in a different town?
Government guidance issued alongside the “Stay at Home Rules” on 23 March deals specifically with child contact arrangements. It says: “Where parents do not live in the same household, children under 18 can be moved between their parents’ homes.” Although this establishes an exception to the mandatory “stay at home” requirement, it does not mean that children must be moved between homes. It is for the parents to decide whether it is sensible for a child to move between parental homes in light of their present health, the risk of infection and the presence of any recognised vulnerable individuals in one household or the other.
Are there any legal implications of living together during Coronavirus lockdown?
Yes, there are potential legal implications of living together during Coronavirus lockdown if one of you is a property owner. As an unmarried couple, your claims against each other are limited as you do not have the same rights as a married couple. However, if financial or other significant contributions are made by a non-owning party to property held in the other party’s sole name, then under trust law the non-owning party may be able to make a claim. Property owners therefore need to be cautious. For more information about this, please see our blog “Are there any legal implications of living together during Coronavirus lockdown?”
I am currently living in an abusive relationship. Is there anything I can do during the Coronavirus lockdown?
Yes, the government has released new guidance which states that despite the Coronavirus lockdown, victims of domestic abuse are allowed to leave their homes to seek help at refuges. You are also allowed to move to a friend’s address for several days to ‘cool off’ following an argument at home.
You can also apply for a domestic abuse (Family Law Act) injunction, which will either protect you or your child from being harmed or threatened by the person who is abusing you (known as a non-molestation order), or decide who lives in the family home or enter the surrounding area (known as an occupation order).
The courts have classified these types of injunctions as ‘work which must be done’ during the Coronavirus pandemic. Applications can be made with or without notice to your partner, depending on the urgency of your situation. The courts will then list a hearing which, at the moment, are being held remotely via Skype, telephone or video link.
Legal aid may be available for this type of work, provided you have evidence of the abuse and you cannot afford to pay legal costs. Read the eligibility criteria.
If you are in immediate danger, you should dial 999, or for non-emergency support, you should dial 101.
It is important to remember that there is help and support available to anyone who feels they are at risk of abuse, including police response, online support, helplines, refuges, and other services. Links to bodies who can assist you can be found via the Government guidance – Coronavirus : Support for victims of domestic abuse.
You should not feel alone.