Child maintenance and arrangements during COVID-19
Our experienced and expert family solicitors are here to help guide you through a wide range of family law issues. We answer some of the most frequently asked questions our family law team have received during this time of uncertainty.
I have an existing maintenance arrangement in place. What happens if I suffer financially and can no longer continue with payments?
Broadly, there are two types of maintenance – spousal maintenance and child maintenance. You may have an informal agreement in place to provide financial support to your former partner, there may be an existing arrangement with the Child Maintenance Service (CMS) or there may be an existing order in place. Depending upon the type and nature of the maintenance will determine what steps may be taken by the recipient.
The key is communication to those who are concerned. If you can, speak to your former partner or provide them with notice of the change in circumstances. If the CMS are involved, contact them and speak to an advisor, as well as communicating with the other parent. Open communication may prevent matters from escalating and avoiding unnecessary stress on everyone.
Given that we are in extraordinary circumstances, it is highly likely that it is not just you who is experiencing the strain and it is best to remain transparent throughout this entire process. If you continue to receive your full pay then it should not come as a surprise that the other side will expect to continue to receive full payments.
Can my ex-partner/spouse stop complying with an existing Child Arrangements Order made at Court?
Many clients are concerned that their ex-partner or spouse may use the current situation as an excuse to stop their children spending time with them due to the Government's restrictions on people's movements. The guidance published by the Government is clear that where parents do not live in the same household, children under 18 can be moved between their parents’ homes.
Therefore, whether the time that children spend with another parent is court ordered or not, the usual arrangements should continue, and you are permitted to leave you home to facilitate this.
However, this should only happen if it is safe to do so and we all must follow the Government’s guidelines regarding isolation to reduce the spread of the virus.
If the children or a member of the parents' home where the children are residing presents with symptoms of the coronavirus then the children should stay residing at that parent's home as per the government guidance for a period of 14 days of self-isolation.
During this time the arrangements to spend time with the other parent will need to be suspended. Thereafter the usual arrangements should resume.
Similarly, if the other parent or a member of the other parent’s home, that the children are not currently residing in but would be as per the arrangement presents with symptoms of the coronavirus, the children should not move from where they are.
The children should not attend the other parents’ home for 7 days if that parent lives alone, or 14 days if that parent lives with others, as per the Government guidance, as this would put them at risk of harm.
Indirect contact such as telephone calls, FaceTime, and Skype should take place if spending time with your children face-to-face is not appropriate.
Careful consideration must also be given to those who may be considered vulnerable, or who live with or rely on elderly relatives for childcare. Those who are considered vulnerable have been advised to self-isolate for 12 weeks by the Government and this must be factored in when deciding the arrangements for the children as to not put others who are vulnerable at risk.
During this time, a sensible and pragmatic approach will need to be taken, and flexibility is likely to be required in many situations.
Ultimately, in the event there are persistent breaches of a Child Arrangements Order, it is possible to make an application to enforce an order. However, in these unprecedented circumstances, the Courts would be unable to enforce the order if it places a persons’ health at risk and the Courts are unlikely to penalise that person for non-compliance.
I am concerned about isolation whilst in an abusive relationship – what can I do?
It is important to remember that if you fear you are in immediate risk of harm, call 999 and ask for the Police. Committing domestic abuse is a criminal offence and one that will be taken seriously by the authorities.
In addition, there are support agencies across the country who will continue to operate during these difficult times, and many of them have support which is available remotely. For example, Women’s Aid and the National Domestic Abuse Helpline offer support which you can access online or through your phone, meaning you have support at your fingertips whenever you need it.
As it stands the courts remain open however measures are being updated on how cases will be considered. There are orders which can be obtained from the family court on an urgent basis, such as a non-molestation order or occupation order, and the courts can impose whatever measures are necessary to safeguard an individual’s wellbeing.
It is important for you to try and obtain advice and support at the first available opportunity, particularly if you are concerned for the safety and wellbeing of yourself or any children in the home.
I am in the middle of court proceedings and have a hearing soon – will this still go ahead?
Recent guidance has been issued by the family court which confirms that no category of case necessarily requires physical attendance, and that they should be taking place remotely until further notice. This could be via telephone, video conference or even on paper (by email) in some cases.
The guidance goes on to say that where a remote hearing is not possible, the hearing listed should be adjourned and a directions hearing should take place remotely instead, to determine how the issues can be dealt with properly, fairly and justly.
Specific guidance has been released about financial remedy cases to states that in-person hearings should only be taking place “where this is absolutely unavoidable”.
All first directions appointments in financial remedy cases are being encouraged to take place on paper only, with the parties' legal representatives liaising together to determine which directions are being sought.
If an agreement is reached, Judges can accept consent orders for their approval, which will allow cases to progress smoothly without the need for anyone to physically attend court.
The responsibility for arranging the remote hearing will fall on different parties, depending on what type of case it is.
Can I still petition for divorce or apply to the court for an order during this time, and how do I get support with this?
The family court are still accepting divorce petitions and court applications via email or their online portal. However, we are anticipating long delays with the court being able to process new applications, and in line with the guidance set out above, the default position will be that hearings take place remotely.
Here at Slater and Gordon, we are lucky enough to have the technology that allows us to work from home effectively, and so we are hoping to continue with normal activity as much as possible.
If you are thinking about petitioning for divorce or making an application to the court during this time, you may be better placed taking legal advice on alternative options to resolve your matter first. It may be that a holding position can be agreed between you and your ex-partner, whilst we continue through this uncertainty, with a view to applying to the court in the near distant future.
Alternatively, if you wish to go ahead now, we can assist with your divorce petition and/or court application, to help your case progress as smoothly as possible.
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We will listen to you and provide advice on your particular situation – with your interests at heart and at your pace.
Legal advice tailored to you
We know that every family is unique which is why we carefully tailor our advice to suit individual families’ needs and strive to secure the best outcome for you.
To speak to a member of our family law team, call us on 0330 041 5869 or contact us online here and we will call you back.
For anyone needing help with family issues I could not recommend Slater and Gordon highly enough. I always had the feeling I had the best looking after my interests and they certainly didn't disappoint. C I (family and personal matters case)
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