A considerable amount was reported in the press during the first lockdown in relation to contact arrangements for children. The guidance since then has not changed although, as we have all become more used to life in lockdown and very familiar to concepts that didn't exist a year ago such as support bubbles, shielding and self-isolation, it's worthwhile reflecting on the Governments position in relation to maintaining contact between children and parents.
To recap, the advice is as follows.
- Lockdown restrictions do not apply if the purpose of the meeting / necessary travel is to facilitate contact between parents and children where the children divide time between their parents in two different households.
- This does not mean that children "must" move between homes. The decision is for the parents to make.
- If the parents agree that contact in the usual way is not safe to go ahead alternative arrangements should be put in place to maintain regular contact between the child and the other parent ideally by way of video.
- Children who are required to self-isolate must continue to do so and should not stay with the other parent for contact during a period of self-isolation.
But what if the parents are unable to agree what's appropriate?
This guidance states that parents, acting in agreement, are free to decide that the usual arrangements, even if set out in a court order, should be temporarily varied.
Where parents do not agree, the guidance states that if one parent feels contact cannot safely go ahead that parent may, in exercising their parental responsibility, make the decision that contact cannot take place.
If the parents decision to stop contact is questioned at a later date in a family court the court will examine whether each parent acted sensibly and reasonably in all the circumstances taking in account the child’s health, the risk of infection and the presence of any recognised vulnerable individuals in one or other household.
Parents are reminded that the court will look very carefully at any unnecessary and unreasonable breaches of an existing contact order, to which a warning notice will have been attached. A 'warning notice' is attached to all child arrangements orders warning of the consequences of failing to comply with it. A warning notice states that if someone breaches a child arrangements order, “the court may fine or imprison them for contempt of court, or may make an enforcement order or an order for financial compensation.” An enforcement order can require the person who breached the child arrangements order to undertake between 40 and 200 hours of unpaid work.
Will child maintenance be affected if contact arrangements are varied?
If child maintenance is paid under an informal agreement, then, in the first instance, parents should try and discuss and agree whether any changes to payments are necessary but as a general rule the expectation is that payments will continue in the usual amount upon the basis that any changes to contact arrangements are only temporary.
If parents are using the Child Maintenance Service, adjustments to the payment will only be made if the income of the paying parent has changed by 25%.
Single parent households are permitted to form a support bubble with another family if the children who live with the single parent are under 18. This support bubble can be separate and in addition to the household that includes the other parent.
For further advice in relation to child arrangements or any other family matter please contact Denise Findlay or a member of the Birketts Family Law Team.
The content of this article is for general information only. It is not, and should not be taken as, legal advice. If you require any further information in relation to this article please contact the author in the first instance. Law covered as at November 2020.