Back in March 2020, there was initially some confusion about whether children (aged under 18) were able to move between the households of their separated parents. Thankfully this issue has now been clarified and the guidance is clear, even during lockdown, children are able to move between their two parents’ homes.
What is sometimes less straightforward, is assessing any health risks which might be involved and balancing this with children being able to maintain contact with both of their parents. Currently, it is often this very difficult ‘balancing act’ which leads to the breakdown of child arrangements, with parents having very different views about whether it is safe to continue with contact.
Should parents find themselves in this situation there are various ways forward, with two of the main options being either to make a court application or to have some discussions in mediation but how do parents make a decision about the best option for them? Hopefully the following will assist:
Whilst the courts are doing their best in what is clearly a very difficult situation, this is the current reality:
1. There is currently a backlog of cases, with applications taking between six and nine months to conclude, sometimes longer.
2. Some of the initial directions hearing are dealt with exclusively by the court, with neither parents or their solicitors being able to make representations. This can result in the opportunity for interim contact arrangements (pending a final decision) being delayed.
3. Most hearings are now being conducted remotely, often by telephone. The feedback from parents is that they often find this an intimidating experience.
Fortunately, the lockdown has had little impact on discussions in mediation. Where necessary remote meetings via video can be arranged, which means:
1. There is no delay in dealing with cases.
2. Both parents have the opportunity to express their views, be heard and decide for themselves what arrangements are appropriate.
3. A mediator is present to ensure that both parents get the opportunity to speak, that conversations are constructive and child-focused and to help parents to set up safe child contact arrangements.
Of course, how difficulties are resolved is ultimately a decision for parents and not all cases will be suitable for mediation, but I would suggest that, in the midst of a pandemic, mediation has an even more important part to play.