Planning ahead for a Covid Christmas is key for those separated parents based in England or planning to travel to England from across the UK as well as from overseas.
Here’s our advice for a dispute-free Covid Christmas for separated parents during the festive period.
Christmas is known to be a very stressful time of year for families. It’s often even more difficult for parents who are separated and are trying to create the best Christmas possible for their children who will be spending time between each parent’s home. The added pressure of a global pandemic is no doubt the recipe for a Nightmare Before Christmas rather than a Christmas Miracle!
Contact, and lack of it, is one of this year’s most contentious issues for parents. In September 2020 alone, the CAFCASS had 540 more private law cases than the previous year highlighting the strain Covid-19 is putting on families (details referenced here).
Where there is a court order already in place to organise arrangements over Christmas, how does the pandemic affect these plans?
If there is already a court order in place, the guidance from the Family Court is: ‘despite the national pandemic, even if the letter of the order can’t be followed, the spirit of it should be.’
Children with separated parents are allowed to move between homes regardless of lockdown rules. Separated parents and children can mix indoors where necessary to allow their child to move between homes. This is not counted as a childcare bubble, meaning that both parents living separately can form a childcare bubble with one other household (or two other households between the 23rd and 27th of December) as long as the child is under 14 (information correct on 2/12/20).
This is not to say a child must move. If parents can’t agree to vary a court order, one parent may remain concerned that it is not Covid-safe for the child to move between two different homes. Therefore, if a resolution is required, with the assistance of the court, the parent will be asked in detail whether they have acted sensibly and safely in light of government Coronavirus advice. In the case of a child not being able to be in contact with a parent during this time, the court will look into ways in which the parent is making arrangements with the other parent for indirect contact via the like of Zoom Video.
If parents can’t reach a consensual agreement for plans during a Covid Christmas, they might want to consider mediation to bridge the gap. Mediation is an important area to explore mainly because parents can’t bring an application to the court unless they’ve explored it as an option. There are exemptions to having to undergo mediation, you can read about these here.
If mediation doesn’t work and parents are looking for a binding solution, consider whether arbitration might be a suitable option. This is a privately funded option whereby parents can choose a judge and the date of arbitration. This may be the best option for obtaining an outcome prior to the Christmas holidays beginning.
If these options are not possible, parents will need to issue an application at court. In urgent cases, this will be the fastest route as long as the court also agrees on its level of urgency.
The pandemic has created a very large backlog of cases as so many were adjourned during the initial national lockdown in March. As a result there is the risk that a case might not be heard for up to 12 weeks which obviously means that with Christmas only a few weeks away, this option should be approached with caution.
What if I am a parent travelling from overseas to the UK to see my child over the Christmas period?
If you are a parent coming from overseas and are required to self isolate, your child can move between homes to see you. However, you cannot leave the house/venue where you are based with the child as that would be breaking an isolation period. If you are planning on travelling from overseas, be prepared and organised to spend a long period of time inside with the inability to go outside with your child.
This year’s Covid Christmas is going to be different and understandably more difficult than previous years. Separated families will have to try and work together and be flexible as far as they possibly can in an environment that changes almost everyday. Plan ahead and discuss arrangements for children in good time and also consider contingency plans in the event of unforeseeable developments, something that has become ever more prominent this year!
If an agreement cannot be reached then mediation would be the best option rather than instantly issuing court proceedings, which are unlikely to be dealt with at the moment anyway. Alternatively, it may be better to avoid the current delays of the in-court system and arbitrate the issue.