Where does the current coronavirus (COVID-19) lockdown leave separated parents with children?

Can I still see my child during the lockdown in England?

Yes, the government provided an express exception to the "stay at home" rules which allows children (aged under 18) to move between their two parents' home.

However, before deciding whether a child should spend time in both homes you should consider:
- the child(ren)'s health
- if anyone is showing symptoms, whether there is a risk of infection
- whether there are vulnerable people in either home

It is important that matters are discussed between both parents and where possible an agreement should be reached.

If it is decided that usual contact should not continue, for example due to health reasons, indirect contact (such as telephone and video calls) should still take place. The parents may also look to agree to make up any lost days of contact at a later date, such as during the next school holidays.

I am a grandparent, can I see my grandchild during the lockdown in England?

The government guidance states that, where the child is 13 years old or under, parents are able to form a 'childcare bubble' with one other household for the purposes of informal childcare. This means that someone in one household can provide informal (unpaid and unregistered) childcare to a child or children aged 13 years or under in another household. Importantly, the 'childcare bubble' is restricted to be between two households.

Therefore, grandparents are able to see their grandchildren if they are providing childcare and the same grandparents care for the same grandchildren every time. However, government guidance states that you are not allowed to swap households in your childcare bubble, so grandparents who have more than one set of grandchildren, living in more than one other household, are only allowed to provide childcare for one set of their grandchildren. The 'rule of six' remains in place so your childcare bubble cannot made up of more than 6 people (including the children).

My child's class has been told to self-isolate due to a potential Covid-19 case at the school. Can they still see their other parent during this isolation?

Yes. As with the national lockdown, children moving between two separated parents' houses is an exception to the rules. However, if the child is unwell, then it may not be in the child's best interests for them to be moved between houses, as with other types of illness.

In addition, if the child is showing any symptoms of coronavirus, or if one of the parents or someone in their household is classed as vulnerable, then it may be safer for the child to stay with the other parent during their self-isolation period.

The best course of action should be discussed and agreed between the parents, where possible. This may be a scary time for children and therefore, it is important to maintain their routine as much as possible. If it is decided that the child should not see the other parent as normal, then indirect contact such as telephone or video calls should take place instead. If the child is unwell both parents must be kept well informed by one another about the child's condition and wellbeing.

I will need to quarantine for 14 days when I return from a holiday. Will I still be able to have my child/ren to stay with me as usual during this period?

Yes. There are a few exceptions to the rules, one of which is to fulfil a legal obligation. Therefore, if a child arrangement order states that the children should be with you, then this would fall into this exception.

In addition, the government has provided an express carve out for the children moving between separated homes for self-isolating so this is likely to apply in these circumstances too. However, if you begin showing symptoms or become ill, it may not be wise for your children to come and stay with you. You should discuss the situation open and honestly with the other parent, where possible.

There is a high risk/vulnerable person in the household where the child primarily lives. Should contact with the other parent still take place?

If someone in the household is high risk, parents should explore between them whether contact should continue.

Health must come first. If it is decided that direct contact should be stopped for health reasons, parents should maintain indirect contact and explore using options such as Facetime, WhatsApp video calls and Zoom.

There is a vulnerable person in the non-residential home. Should contact still go ahead?

If there is a vulnerable person in either household, a child moving between homes may pose a risk to that vulnerable person. This needs to be considered carefully by both parents. Health must come first and the Family Court guidance states that whilst children can be removed between homes, it does not mean that they must be moved.

If one parent is sufficiently concerned that continuing the existing child arrangements could be a risk to either the child or someone else (i.e. the vulnerable person), then they should discuss the possibility of varying the contact arrangements in the interim with the other parent. If the other parent will not agree, the concerned parent can unilaterally vary the arrangements if they feel that continuing with the arrangements goes against official health advice.

If this decision is later challenged in the Family Court, the Court will look to see whether that parent acted 'sensibly and reasonably' in light of the advice and their specific circumstances. Therefore, parents who decide to withhold contact must ensure that they are communicating clearly with the other parent (ideally in writing) and they are facilitating telephone and video calls with the other parent. It should also be considered whether any time lost by one of the parents should be made up at an alternative time.

The other parent now won't return the child to me. What can I do?

If there are no medical issues within either household and neither household is self-isolating, children should maintain their usual routine of spending time with each of their parents and Child Arrangement Orders should be followed as closely as possible.

If you have an informal arrangement and the other parent is refusing contact, then you can make an application to the Court for a Child Arrangement Order.

If you have a Child Arrangement Order in place, you can make an emergency application to the court to enforce this. Please get in touch via the enquiry form below if you think this will be necessary and we will be able to advise further.

Is it still legal to transfer my child between parents if one of us lives in an area under a local lockdown?

Providing there are no health concerns, children should continue to spend time with both parents and their routine should be disrupted as little as possible whilst it remains safe.

The government provided an express carve during the national lockdown for children to be transferred between parents and therefore, it is likely that the same applies to local lockdowns. Even if there are different rules in place between local areas, travelling to see your children or a child transferring between parents is classed as essential. Therefore, contact should not automatically be stopped as parents are able to travel to see, drop off or pick up their child. If you have a Child Arrangement Order in place and you stop contact without good reason, you could be in breach of that order.

Parents should however ensure that that they comply with the social distancing and lockdown guidance of the area in which they are spending time with the child.

The residential parent won't allow any contact including phone and video calls. What can I do?

If there are no medical issues or self-isolation issues within the household, children should maintain their usual routine and spend time with each of their parents in person.

If a household is self-isolating, parents should find alternative ways of indirect contact, such as Facetime, Zoom or WhatsApp video call.

If a parent is refusing any contact, you can make an application to the court, either to enforce an existing Child Arrangements Order or to make an application for a new Child Arrangements Order. Please get in touch if you need further advice on this.

Is travelling to collect my child for contact classed as 'essential travel'?

The government has confirmed that travel from one parent's home to the other parent's home is classed as essential travel for children under the age of 18.

When transporting children between their homes, parents should ensure that they follow the latest government guidelines on social contact:

- parents should travel by car and avoid public transport where possible
- if public transport is not avoidable, follow the government social distancing guidelines of maintaining 2 metre distance from other people and washing hands on arrival at home.

There is no specific Government guidance on whether a friend or relative can drive a parent to collect their children, when the parent is unable to drive themselves. There is some guidance on the Devon & Cornwall Police website for situations similar to this (ie, can a member of the same household drive a key worker to their place of work; can a friend or relative drive me to the airport). That guidance suggests you will need to be ready to justify your journey if challenged by the police.

If you live in the same household as the person who will be driving you to collect your children you are not going to breach social distancing rules by travelling together and it would seem less risky for you to be taken by car than for you (and then your child(ren)) to use public transport to make the journey. You and the person driving you will need to consider social distancing rules when arriving to collect the children, ie, not going into the house yourself, maintaining 2m distance from others.

The other parent is still working and I am concerned about the risk of them passing on the virus. Can I stop contact?

Regardless of the parents' jobs, usual contact between the parents should be maintained.

If a child is classed as vulnerable due to an existing health condition, parents should consider what is best for the child's health and continue to review this in light of anyone developing symptoms.

I am aware the other household is not following social distancing and are therefore putting my child and members of my household at greater risk. What can I do?

If government advice is not being followed by your child's other parent, you may be able to withhold contact on the basis that continuing with the child arrangements poses a risk to the child and others. You should communicate clearly with the other parent and ensure that you are still allowing telephone and video calls as an alternative to the usual direct contact that would take place.

I have lost my job/am unable to get work because of coronavirus (Covid19). What will happen to my maintenance payments?

You will need to speak with Child Maintenance Service (CMS) specifically about your case.

However, as a general rule, if your income has decreased then so will your child maintenance payments. If you also pay spousal maintenance following a divorce, you may need to apply to the Court to vary your financial Court Order.

We have a shared parenting order. Can we still do handovers?

The short answer is yes. The government has confirmed that children under 18 can be moved between their two parents.

The terms of a Child Arrangement Order will still apply and should continue to be followed unless to do so presents a risk to the child or another person. If anyone in either household is showing any symptoms of coronavirus then common sense should prevail. It is in nobody's interest for the virus to be spread between households.

In addition, if anyone in either household is in the 'very high risk' category, then you may need to consider whether contact should continue. Health must come first. Make sure you communicate with the other parent about any symptoms and continue to support indirect contact such as by Facetime or Skype.

If handovers are due to take place in a public place, this should continue but they should be done somewhere like a car park with lots of space where you will not come within two meters of other people, and where the child can be safely transported from one car to another.

Alternatively, one parent should be responsible for collecting and dropping off the child for contact and they should drop the child outside of the other parent's house (without going in to the house) and watch the child go in.

My Contact Centre has closed. Where should the handover take place?

Some contact centres have been impacted by the pandemic. If your local centre has closed or you are unable to find any suitable availability, then the handover will not be able to take place. However, you may be able to find an alternative contact centre to facilitate the handover. You can search for a contact centre at naccc.org.uk/find-a-centre.

If you are unable to find a contact centre, as an alternative in the short term you should make use of indirect contact (such as telephone and video calls) to ensure that relationships are maintained and the impact on the child is reduced. If this is not possible or if you require advice about contact in the long term, please get in touch.

We have shared parenting but the other parent is current in self-isolation. Should I keep my child at home with me until this passes?

If one parent is showing symptoms of coronavirus and is self-isolating, then it would not be wise for your child to go and spend time with them. After the period of isolation has ended (14 days after symptoms first began), the child can begin spending time with both parents again.

The current Child Arrangement Order involves a vulnerable person. Do they still have to uphold their obligations in the Order? (Specifically where grandparents are responsible for transporting children or looking after for short periods of time.)

Child Arrangement Orders can be varied if it poses a risk to either the child or another person. Therefore, grandparents or other parties will not be expected to uphold their obligations if their health is at risk. The third party should communicate this clearly with the parents and then the parents will need to discuss alternative arrangements.

Any alternative arrangements should be safe for the child and the parents. This may mean that contact cannot go ahead if there is no safe alternative. However, parents should be understanding in the circumstances and the parent with whom the child is living should ensure that indirect contact still goes ahead by video or telephone call.

I am concerned that if I let my child go to the other parent during lockdown, they might not be returned to me. What can I do if that happens?

The government has stated that children under the age of 18 can be moved between their parents' home. This means that the usual contact arrangements should continue, save for when there is a medical reason for this not to happen.

If the other parent unreasonably will not return the child to you, you can make an emergency application to the court to enforce your Child Arrangement Order. Please do get in contact via the form below if you have questions about doing this.

We don't have an official childcare arrangement in place. What should we do?

The usual child arrangements should continue where possible and if there is no medical reason to vary the arrangements. Children can still travel between their parents' houses and it would appear that this is regardless of whether or not there is an official Order in place.

If the other parent will not cooperate with you, you can make an application to the Court for a Child Arrangement Order. Please get in touch via the form below if you would think this will be necessary.

My child has an underlying health condition. Can they still move between the homes?

The government guidance says that children moving between there parent's homes is classed as essential travel. However, The Family Court have emphasised that this does not mean the children must move between homes if the parents do not feel it is safe for them to do so because of their health. The Family Court encourage parents to communicate their concerns openly with one another and putting the child's health first is a priority.

If there is a Child Arrangements Order in place, the Family Court advises where parents are in agreement as to the best course of action, they are free to vary the child arrangement if they feel it is necessary.

Where parents are not in agreement and where a parent is sufficiently concerned that complying with the Order would be against current government health advice, then the Family Court states that one parent can vary the order to arrangements that they consider is safe. The Court advises that if these decisions are challenged in the Family Court arena, the Court will look at whether the parent acted "reasonably and sensibly" in light of official advice and stay at home rules in place at the time. They will also consider the specific circumstances of the child and family.

If a parent does choose to vary the Order of the court because of the Coronavirus, the spirit of the order should be kept by making safe alternative arrangements for contact, such as using indirect methods such as Facetime, WhatsApp video calls or Zoom.

I live in a house-share rental property and would prefer my child not to come into my home. Am I allowed to meet my child outdoors instead, and would social distancing need to be followed or would physical contact be allowed?

The current guidance states that children may move between parents' homes, however parents need to be mindful of any risks to health that this may present. You need to consider why you do not think it is appropriate for your child to come to your home. If the reason is that you are living with a vulnerable person, you need to consider whether you are putting them at any additional risk by seeing your child. If you consider it appropriate to do so, you may wish to see your child outdoors however, where possible, you should follow social distancing rules to help reduce the risk of the virus spreading.

Are there any restrictions on how far I am allowed to travel to see or transfer my child between its parents?

The current guidance states that, in the context of exercise, households will be able to drive to other open destinations in England for such activities. Whilst the Government has not provided specific guidance regarding travel to collect/drop off a child, it would seem sensible that the same travel allowances should be in place for parents seeing their children. Each case will need to be considered on its own merits and parents should consider whether in their circumstances, it is safe to travel. Social distancing should be maintained where possible and good self-hygiene should be a priority.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.