COVID-19 symptoms in a household
Where a child or adult in a household is in the vulnerable category or is displaying Covid-19 symptoms usual parenting arrangements may not be possible. That doesn’t mean parents can’t be in touch with their children.
Where social restrictions are necessary families should amicably try to find solutions that are in the best interests of the child and the health of those around them in line with the spirit of contact orders. Both parents and children will benefit from this in the long run.
The Lord Chief Justice has issued guidance which may answer some of the questions you have about contact arrangements and orders and going to court to resolve issues. You can view the guidance on the Judiciary NI website.
Those arrangements will be kept under review and information will be updated as circumstances develop.
You may find it useful to discuss matters with your solicitor or a mediator.
Children moving between households
The mandatory stay at home direction does not apply to children moving between households. Contact orders still apply and parents can continue to share care of their children and can travel to pick them up.
When transporting your children between homes you should always make sure that you follow the latest government guidelines on social contact.
If there are handover arrangements in place these should continue in so far as it is safe to do so. Consideration could be given to this taking place in a public place that would allow for social distancing, such as a car park. This would allow for safe distancing and the child can go safely from one car to the other.
Alternatively you may be able to agree that one parent is responsible for the collection and return of the child to the resident home and arrangements put in place to facilitate safe handover.
Every family is different and parents should work together to assess their particular circumstances, including the child’s health, the risk of infection and the presence of any vulnerable individuals in homes children may be visiting.
Contact and the health and wellbeing of children
The main consideration at this difficult time must be the health and wellbeing of children. It is important that they continue to spend time with both parents in line with contact orders - unless doing so would put the child or others at risk.
While it's understandable for parents to be concerned about their child’s safety during this unprecedented time, COVID–19 should not be used to stop contact. Your children can feel anxious and scared too. Maintaining routines and contact between your child and their other parent maintains some stability for them and may help them feel safe and secure.
However that does not mean that children must move between homes if parents do not feel that it is safe for them due to underlying heath conditions. If parents are worried that face to face contact would put children or other vulnerable members of the household at risk the Lord Chief Justice’s directions provide that they can agree changes to arrangements without going back to court. New arrangements should be line with the spirit of existing court orders and parents should make every effort to “make up” time where contact has been missed. The court will look at whether a parent acted reasonably in light of the guidance available to them when making future orders.
Variation to existing contact arrangements may need to be considered where there are grandparents or other individuals involved in transporting children or looking after them for short periods of time. Grandparents or other parties involved in contact arrangements will not be expected to uphold the arrangements if this puts their health at risk.
If you decide to stop face to face contact with the other parent due to risk then you should ensure that you are still trying to facilitate the child having contact by setting up indirect contact which could be by telephone or video links.
Parents should record the new agreements in a note, email or text message sent to each other and to their legal representative (if they have one).
Changes to contact arrangements
Decisions about children moving between homes are for parents to make with consideration for the child’s present health, the risk of infection and the presence of any recognised vulnerable individuals in households. Ideally parents will reach an agreement either themselves or with the support of their solicitor or mediator. Where that is not possible parents should be reassured by the Lord Chief Justice’s guidance which notes that the court will consider the reasonableness of actions parents take when considering future orders and that parents may be able to make up time missed with their children.
Returning a child
If there are no medical reasons associated with COVID-19 then the child should be allowed to spend time with each parent.
Where a court order is in place, this should be followed as closely as possible, however if you cannot negotiate return of the child you should discuss this with your solicitor. This will also apply where you have no court order. If you are self-representing, you can consider an urgent application to the courts. Guidance is available through the guidance for Litigants in Person on the Judiciary NI website.
Unfortunately, the COVID-19 emergency means contact centres have had to close until further notice.
If you have been affected by the closures you may be able to agree safe alternative arrangements with your child’s other parent. Indirect contact such as telephone or video calls should be considered to ensure that the relationships are maintained and the impact on the child is reduced. Your legal representative or social workers may be able to assist with that process.
Contact where there is no court order in place
Children can still travel between their parents houses for contact and the contact arrangements you have in place should continue unless there is medical reason as to why they can’t.
Where this is the case then arrangements should be put in place to facilitate your child having contact via telephone or video link. If you cannot reach an agreement with the other parent you could try mediation or discuss options with a solicitor.
Restricted court hearings
The pandemic has changed how we interact with each other and how services are provided. That must include how the courts operate as the protection of life must be the primary focus at this time and court hearings have primarily been restricted to urgent matters in recent weeks (such as non-molestation orders, child abduction, Care Orders, Prohibited Steps Orders, Emergency Protection Orders and Secure Accommodation Orders). However where parents cannot reach agreement themselves an application (FC11 form if you are represented or LIPC11 if you are representing yourself – both are available from the above link) can still be submitted to the court. The Judge will decide whether they can make a decision based on the papers or whether a hearing is necessary, which could be by live link.
As the courts begin to recover the types of hearing taking place is increasing and further up-to-date guidance is available from the link above. If you are self-representing you can obtain guidance from the guidance for Litigants in Person via the link above.
Public, employee and judicial well-being must be the priority and for this reason people should not attend court and tribunal venues at this time. The Judge will make a decision as to the manner of any hearing and who will be in attendance and you will be notified of such. Applications can be submitted by post or email in line with the published guidance.
Court Children’s Service
The impact of COVID-19 means that staff resources need to be focused on urgent front line services therefore the work of the Court Children’s Service has been stood down until further notice.
If your case had previously been referred to the Court Children’s Service for the input of a Court Children’s Officer, when reviewing the case the Judge will consider the continuing need for this and if still required, it will remain on the waiting list.
If it is a new application and the Judge decides the Court Children’s Service needs to be involved the referral will be placed on the waiting list.
The public health emergency has made it necessary to suspend some supervised contact with children subject to a care orders but where risks mean that is necessary social workers will be talking to families to help them maintain contact with children remotely. That may include letters, cards or video messaging.
Unsupervised contact with children subject to care orders should also be done remotely until the COVID-19 restrictions end.
If you have any queries not addressed on this page or in the Lord Chief Justice’s guidance you may wish to discuss them with your solicitor, if you have one, or a mediator.
When not to transfer between households
If your child, or someone in their household, has contracted the COVID-19 virus or they are displaying any the symptoms listed on the government health advice pages, they should be self-isolating and should not be transferring between households.
This is in line with the Government advice for households with possible COVID-19 infection.
If you are worried your child has contracted the COVID-19 virus you should follow the Government advice on reporting new COVID-19 cases.
As COVID-19 related guidance changes, it is important that you regularly check the government website for the most current advice.