30 March 2020
“WFH”, home schooling, remote hearings and child arrangements
Reflections on the first week of lockdown
Last week I wrote a short piece on child arrangements immediately following the government’s announcement at 8:30pm on 23 March that everyone in the UK should stay at home, save for very limited exceptions. After almost a week of lockdown I, my family and many of my clients are balancing conflicting roles and responsibilities in a way that we could not have contemplated as we returned to work and school after the February half term…. and it hasn’t been easy. Ten years of experience as a working Mum has taught me that parenthood and working outside of the home have never been easy bedfellows, however that is never more true now where many households are balancing two jobs, parenting, conflict resolution, domestic tasks, home schooling, family fun, assisting vulnerable family members and somehow trying to fit in a few moments of peace for themselves. As I reflect on the struggles of the first week, I think about those people across the UK who are managing the lockdown with an already fractured relationship (some of whom will be living separated in the same house), those who are already living separately and have to navigate arrangements for their children, those who have hearings that may be adjourned or dealt with remotely due to the restrictions and the closure of many family courts and the most vulnerable who are experiencing domestic abuse and are in lockdown with their abuser.
So, how have things moved on in the last 7 days and what have we learned?
In my article last week, I referred to the guidance issued by CAFCASS for separated parents. I have been encouraging my clients to read it. Co-parenting, tolerance and patience have never been more laudable goals. That will of course not be possible in every case, as all family lawyers know. In those cases where that guidance is not followed, and parents cannot be child focused or where there are children at risk, the courts are still open for business and urgent applications can be made and dealt with remotely (via telephone, Skype, zoom or in some instances by email) if necessary. The Family Court is working hard getting up to speed with the requirements of the new system and guidance has been issued about how the remote access family court will work – guidance which will no doubt be reviewed and will evolve as the days and weeks pass.
It has been made clear, that the children of separated parents can move between their parents’ homes and that will not be a breach of the travel and social distancing restrictions. The President of the Family Division has issued advice to parents, with existing child arrangements orders, who may be struggling to comply and have legitimate reasons for not doing so. That advice makes it clear, as does the CAFCASS guidance, that parents should communicate and work together to ensure the spirit of a child arrangements order is upheld, where strict compliance may be unavoidably impossible. It is hoped that this will not be considered a licence to breach orders without censure.
Family lawyers are well used to rising early on the day of a court hearing, packing up as many bundles as one can fit in a wheelie suitcase and often travelling by various means of public transport to get there. Many are no doubt, like me, imagining a future where that may not be necessary and straightforward hearings can be dealt with fairly, appropriately and cost effectively, from our desks. The current situation is obviously not an ideal test run. Many lawyers and clients alike will have been frustrated last week with hearings being adjourned at the last minute or cases having to be adjourned where a remote hearing is simply not possible. Understandably some courts were able to deal with the challenge of remote hearings more quickly and effectively than others. Some may be wondering how their forthcoming hearings will be managed, with many being told that the court are looking at hearings on a day to day basis causing confusion and uncertainty for clients. However, we are all very alive to what needs to be done. What we will learn over the coming weeks will, I am sure, turn out to be invaluable.
Those living in a broken relationship will inevitably be struggling. It’s difficult enough already trying to balance everything that is now required of us. Contemplating pushing the button on a separation or divorce proceedings if you have not done so already, will be even more of a scary prospect if you must remain in the same house for the foreseeable future. There is no easy solution. Those who are not at risk may choose to wait it out, be tolerant, patient (if you can) and focus on your children, if you have them, a project or on what your future will look like after the lockdown. Other issues could arise, for example where there is a change in financial circumstances as a result of the lockdown. We are available to give advice (on the telephone, via email or video conferencing) if you need it and to formulate a plan if this helps, although we understand that not everyone in this unhappy situation will have the opportunity to talk in private.
Those who are affected most will be those experiencing domestic abuse (physical or emotional) which may have arisen or be exacerbated by the lockdown. The Home Secretary has said in the Mail on Sunday, that victims of domestic abuse who are trapped inside their homes with their abusers will not be forgotten. She urged those who cannot leave their homes to call the National Domestic Abuse Helpline or a domestic abuse charity. It is also important to remember that urgent applications can still be made to the courts in appropriate circumstances for non-molestation orders seeking to regulate behaviour or occupation orders seeking to regulate the occupation of or exclusion from the family home.
Life has changed. We are all in this together and whilst we all navigate through the difficult waters of the lockdown, we remain by your side to help in whatever way we can. For further advice and guidance, contact firstname.lastname@example.org or call 01753 279046.