As specialists in family law, the solicitors at Higgins Miller have got the expertise and experience needed to help clients dealing with some of the most stressful events that life is likely to throw at them. These can include coping with the complexities of wills and probate, dealing with interactions with social services, working through the adoption process and coping with the fall out of a divorce. In many cases this fallout can involve disagreements over the welfare of any children of the relationship and a child dispute in 2021 is likely to be compounded by the on-going COVID-19 pandemic.
Any child dispute in 2021 is going to be complicated by a raft of factors. These will include the lockdown restrictions which were re-imposed at the start of the year and the closure of schools for the majority of children, both of which are likely to impact on existing arrangements for child care and parental access. The issues around access to children which were first raised amidst the confusion of the original lockdown in March 2020 have never gone away completely, not least because of the suspicion that some parents – particularly when a divorce process has been more acrimonious – are using the difficult circumstances to limit the amount of time which their ex-spouse can spend with their children.
Before looking at how we can help with any child dispute in 2021 it’s probably worth revisiting exactly what the law states with regard to child arrangement orders. These are orders which set out details such as where a child will live and how much time they will spend with each parent. Often a child dispute in 2021 will hinge upon the fact that the parents are finding it difficult to agree on changes to the order to take the exceptional circumstances into account, or that one of the parents has made changes of their own without consultation or agreement.
Through each of the lockdowns which have been imposed since March 2020 the rules regarding parental access to children have been relatively clear and have remained the same. In simple terms there has always been an exemption allowing children to spend time with both of their separated parents, no matter how much travel was involved and whether this meant crossing between various different ‘tiers’ of restriction. This sets out the letter of the law, but the reality on the ground has often been somewhat different, as demonstrated by the number of enquiries we are dealing with regarding a child dispute in 2021. In many cases, one parent has taken advantage of the fact that the law states that children ‘can’ travel between parents but not that they have to. In many cases, the imposition of a lockdown has prompted one of the parents to decide that it is no longer safe for the child in question to travel between two houses, no matter what the law states with regard to the matter. In some cases, the fact that one parent is a key worker such as a nurse or police officer with a public-facing role will be cited by the other parent as a reason why they think that travel between the two households has become too dangerous.
In some cases the parents may agree that a set of circumstances of this kind warrants a variance in existing arrangements, and a child dispute in 2021 will be avoided. In others, however, no such agreement has been made or sometimes even sought, and one parent has unilaterally altered what is either a long-standing informal agreement or a Court Order, and the sad truth is that in some cases a parent may be using the backdrop of the pandemic as an excuse to prevent the other parent seeing their child.
In cases where a Court Order is in place the legal situation is clear – parties should continue to comply with the details of any Order as long as it is safe to do so. A ‘reasonable excuse’ is needed to justify a breach of such an Order, and genuine concerns regarding the health of a child could be seen by the Court as representing such a reasonable excuse. Any parents who are tempted to take advantage of the pandemic in order to alter the practical details of a child arrangements order without the consent of the other parent should be aware of the fact that the other parent will ultimately be able to challenge their actions in the Family Court, and the onus will be on the parent who varied the existing arrangements order to demonstrate that they had a reasonable excuse to do so on the balance of probabilities.
It should be noted that any child arrangements order has a warning notice attached, which states that someone breaching the order may be fined or imprisoned for contempt of court, or face an enforcement order involving between 40 and 200 hours of unpaid work or an order for financial compensation.
The guidance on the issue released by the Family Courts stated the following:
“The key message should be that, where Coronavirus restrictions cause the letter of a court order to be varied, the spirit of the order should nevertheless be delivered by making safe alternative arrangements for the child.”
Further advice included using technology such as Face-Time, Skype, Zoom and even simple telephone calls in order to maintain the contact between parents and children, but the concept of making arrangements of this kind pre-supposes an amicable relationship between the parents. If such a relationship doesn’t exist then, as experts in family law, we work with clients involved in a child dispute in 2021 in an effort to negotiate an agreement which will focus on the health and well-being of the child at the same time as protecting both parents from repercussions in the Family Court at a later date. If you want to find out more about resolving a child dispute in 2021 or other aspects of child arrangements orders please call us on 0161 429 7251 or email us at [email protected] We’ve recently passed our Cyber Essential accreditation, something which demonstrates our forward-thinking attitude and determination to remain ahead of the competition. The first 20-minute appraisal is provided free of charge, and we’ll give you the first appointment for a fixed fee, so you don’t have to worry about how much our advice is going to cost. This initial meeting can ensure that you understand why social services have made contact and can feel able to move forward with confidence. If you want to explore our wider charging system then please take a look here.