You have orders or an agreement on an issue you’ve been facing with your partner,…
Well, lockdown hit hard and fast didn’t it? It was a rude shock after months of no cases here in Canberra.
Naturally, during periods of uncertainty and upheaval such as lockdown, many separated parents have questions about how and if parenting orders and custody arrangements operate.
Questions related to cross border pickups and drop-offs, different opinions between parents about risk, unclear messaging about who is and who isn’t an essential worker, what you’re allowed to do and what you’re not allowed to do during quarantine are all areas rife with disagreement.
As parents, your first instinct may be to protect your child/children from the outside world and draw them close to you at challenging times. Lockdown life for some can be very stressful, confusing, isolating, emotional and exhausting. Our usual decision-making skills can be easily thrown into a state of flux when feeling like this.
Working from home, homeschooling, and having to see your ex-partner regularly (especially if handovers were done before through school or other public locations) will quickly have you feeling frayed and asking how long the lockdown will last this time.
Whilst we all face individual struggles during these turbulent times, it is important to remember that our children are impacted by our decisions, our actions, our relationships, and our emotions.
The law has, for a long time now, recognised every child’s right to know and have a meaningful relationship with both parents to the maximum degree possible that is in their best interests.
This right continues, regardless of changing circumstances that impact us from time to time and is subject only to unacceptable risk issues for the child including abuse, neglect or family violence.
As parents, our obligation to support co-parenting arrangements continues during lockdown. We are expected to continue adhering to co-parenting arrangements, as far as we reasonably can, whether those arrangements are court-ordered, made by agreement, documented (in a Parenting Pan or parenting orders) or undocumented. This can often become difficult, where that expectation clashes with our expectations to comply with health directives.
What should you consider when making decisions during the lockdown in relation to co-parenting?
Ask yourself some practical questions to assist you through the decisions that you need to make.
- Are you an essential worker?
- Is the other parent working from home?
- Where might be the best place to home school your children?
- Has anyone been required to quarantine and what is the plan if that continues to happen for your child?
- What arrangement will give your child the best sense of stability and consistency of routine in their existing relationships?
Whilst many parents will do right by their children and their community, sadly others may choose to use COVID-19 as an excuse to withhold children, contravene parenting orders and ignite conflict with the other parent.
With the September Family Law Courts merger fast approaching, our judicial system is cracking down on family law compliance. Australia’s top family law Judge Chief Justice William Alstergren of the Family Court recently conceded that “compliance in family law has long been a real problem for our system” and has promised change. If you’re the parent wondering if you need to keep complying with parenting orders or not, it is another layer of stress to manage.
With so many unknowns and a rapidly evolving society affected by COVID-19, successful co-parenting relies on both parents being able to amicably navigate through the current situation together.
What should I consider if I am unable to reach a decision with my co-parent?
Parenting decisions should be made first and foremost in the best interests of the child/children in mind and the safety of our community.
Parents may wish to consider several options below to resolve their differences during this time:
- Sensibly and reasonably attempt to resolve disagreements together first (if you can do so safely) by keeping the child’s best interests firmly in mind. This might mean slight deviations or suspension of arrangements to address practical issues which may be raised by a clash between strict adherence to existing Court orders and care arrangements, and government health directives. You might need to keep revisiting and reviewing arrangements for your children as more information comes to hand.
- Parents can attend many providers can mediate your dispute remotely and promptly. Have a contingency plan ready in case there is a delay in accessing mediation, so that children’s care arrangements can continue in the meantime, as far as is possible.
- If face-to-face visits must cease during the lockdown period, it is expected that other ways of continuing the child’s relationship with their parent—such as video and telephone contact—occurs.
- Parents may also choose to make up the face-to-face time lost once the lockdown and restrictions ease.
- If you do hit a roadblock, get legal advice as early as possible to obtain further guidance specific to your situation.
- Remember to keep communicating with your co-parent. Open and transparent discussions which follow the ‘BIFF’ model (Brief, Informative, Friendly and Firm) may reduce anxiety and suspicion, which are often drivers for conflict.
If a consensual solution cannot be found, then you may be eligible to access the Court’s specialist COVID-19 list. This provides a fast-tracked pathway for families affected by COVID-19 disruptions to access Court intervention.
What is the COVID-19 list?
The Courts established a court list dedicated to dealing exclusively with urgent family law disputes that have arisen as a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic. This commenced in April 2020.
To be eligible for the COVID-19 List, you must satisfy all of the following criteria:
- The application has been filed as a direct result of, or if indirect, has a significant connection to, the COVID-19 pandemic;
- The matter is urgent or of a priority nature;
- You file documents to show you have established the eligibility criteria to join the COVID-19 list;
- If safe to do so, you have made reasonable attempts to resolve the dispute but you were unsuccessful;
- The matter can be dealt with using electronic means (e.g.: using telephone or videoconferencing).
If you need further guidance about parenting issues affected by COVID-19 circumstances, we provide several options to access convenient and responsive legal advice with one of our specialist family lawyers.
You can book a free 15-minute consul telephone consult or a fixed-fee ‘Loungeroom Lawyer’ video consultation with us here.