Thanks to coronavirus, parents are being asked to make significant changes to the way that their family functions. With children out of school and parents working from home, it may feel as though all routine is lost and that only chaos and stress will ensue. Of course, parents who are separating and trying to navigate the Family Justice System are no exception to these measures, and it may feel that the requirements to ‘self-isolate’ and ensure ‘social distance’ compound an already difficult situation.
Over the coming months, it seems that the approach to be taken by the Courts and the Family Justice System in relation to divorce, is that the vast majority of hearings and meetings will be done remotely (by videolink or telephone). The same will apply for the various non-court options (arbitration, private FDR, mediation and our own One Couple One Lawyer service).
Only in exceptional circumstances, when a case is genuinely urgent and it is not possible to conduct the hearing remotely, will the Court permit a face-to-face hearing. It is therefore important that separating couples are prepared for matters to be dealt with in this way going forward. In our recent blog, My Family Court Hearing Has Been Adjourned Due To Coronavirus, we set out in more detail the approach of the Courts in response to COVID-19 and the options available for separating couples (both those in the middle of litigation and those who are at the start of the separation process).
In the meantime, many of you will be more concerned with how to go about daily life and to continue to co-parent in the midst of both a pandemic and a divorce. As we enter ‘lockdown’ this week, official guidance has made it clear that children who are under 18 are still permitted to move between separated parents’ households. A copy of the ‘Stay at Home’ rules can be found here.
For those of you who adhere to a parenting plan, you may find that it has become obsolete in recent weeks, for its understandable failure to provide for what is to happen in the event of a global pandemic requiring both you and your children to stay at home indefinitely. What follows offers some more practical guidance which aims to help separating parents cope during these uncertain times.
Communication is key in any separation, but in this extraordinary period, when social norms and government-imposed requirements are changing by the day, communication is absolutely crucial. You need to know what page your co-parent is on in relation to everyday matters so that you are able to co-parent in a co-operative and respectful way. Given the current rate at which advice and guidance is changing, this may necessitate daily video or telephone calls. Further, if you do find that your contact with your child is being restricted as a result of the increased social distancing measures, then indirect contact (via FaceTime or Skype) will be crucial. The President of the Family Division has published some useful general guidance here as to the right approach to be taken to the impact of coronavirus on existing child arrangements.
For most couples, divorce is a highly daunting process, and this is without the added disruption of a pandemic being thrown into the mix. In order to mitigate this, you and your co-parent need to try to reach agreement wherever possible in relation to important coronavirus-related issues. Whilst you may both have different attitudes in relation to social distancing, isolation periods and home schooling, if you can meet each other halfway and agree on these core matters, then not only will you be able to prevent fallout further down the line but you will also provide a stable environment for your children whilst all else seems uncertain.
Some of the issues that you may want to reach agreement on are:
The present lockdown rules have brought some welcome clarity to this issue, but as and when those are relaxed you should try to agree with your co-parent the extent to which you will both be willing to allow people into your respective homes. You might also want to agree on the extent to which your children are allowed to leave the house during this period. For parents with young children, think about whether they will be allowed to go to the park for exercise? What is important is that you agree on the rules and that you avoid contradicting each other when it comes to enforcing them.
Again, the present lockdown rules have avoided all doubt, but as and when they are relaxed what will be your approach if you, your co-parent or your children begin to show coronavirus-related symptoms? Until now, the government’s advice as to the circumstances in which you should self-isolate have relied on a significantly subjective interpretation of when and whether to act.
If the rules are relaxed, how would this work if your child is due to be spending time with you but is currently in a 14-day isolation period with your co-parent? Will they remain in that parent’s care throughout or will you try to agree and arrange a means of safe transportation to the other home? You will need to consider whether the other parent has already had the virus, and the other adults and children within each household.
For now the rules are clear, but these are the sort of issues and the level of detail which it will be necessary to try to agree in the future in order to mitigate acrimony further down the line, and to enable you to co-operate with each other during this difficult time.
With schools now closed, many parents are concerned with how they can ensure that their children’s education continues throughout this period. In order to balance your child’s educational requirements and your own work, you may feel the need to impose strict schedules to ensure that structure is maintained and that goals are met, and this is made all the more complicated and stressful when parents live separately.
It is therefore important for separated parents to try to reach some sort of agreement in relation to your attitudes on ‘home-schooling’, not only to avoid a ‘good cop’ ‘bad cop’ situation which will only cause further resentment, but also to ensure that your child’s educational needs are met in spite of all of this disruption. This might mean agreeing that when the child is in your care, you each take responsibility to get a certain bit of schoolwork done or cover certain subjects.
Try to be flexible with this where possible, for instance if one parent has a flair for maths, and another for languages, it may be a good idea to work out a timetable that suits you all in this respect and which lends itself to a more pleasant learning environment. Being overly rigid in this situation will no-doubt result in failure to meet expectations. What is important is that you remember that you are not alone as parents trying to navigate the nightmare that is home schooling and whilst you do have the added complication of a separation, these are novel times for all parents.
There is no doubt that children benefit from routine and structure, but the importance of it for adults, too, should not be underestimated. In times of uncertainty, routine gives us purpose and it can help us to avoid feeling overwhelmed and lost. The routine that you shape can deal with mundane events such as mealtimes, face-time sessions with the other parent and bedtimes. It may also help to deal with more significant issues like supervising of schoolwork or changeover days. What is important is that you put a structure in place that you can both use as guidance in the coming weeks to ensure that standards are met by both of you.
At the Divorce Surgery, our family law experts can help you with updating parenting plans or for those parents who are yet to reach agreements, we can help you to put in place a coherent plan to enable you and your spouse to navigate this period of self-isolation. Our services are available to couples nation-wide and can be provided remotely. We have been operating by video-link for some time, as this is often the most convenient option for our clients.
For couples who have only recently decided to separate, you may find yourself cooped up in self-isolation with your former partner. In addition, you may feel frustrated at the prospect of your separation being put on hold for the coming months. However, as we discussed in our previous blog, My Family Court Hearing Has Been Adjourned Due To Coronavirus, there are still a variety of options available to you which can help you with advancing your separation, in spite of coronavirus and whilst, understandably, it is a far from ideal situation, this will not last forever.
If this situation applies to you, then there are of course ways by which you can be civil to each other during this tricky period and much of the above will still be relevant. Communication, establishing routine and agreement on the ground rules will all still be crucial, regardless of whether you have children or not. Equally important – though no doubt harder to achieve – will be to try to find just a few moments during the day to yourself where you can relax and talk to your friends.
There is no roadmap for the coronavirus age and whilst we are all going through a similar experience, we all cope with difficult situations differently and no one can fully understand what another person is feeling, and the same goes for your former spouse. Try to be fair and reasonable with them. This may mean holding them to different standards than you usually would or by showing them more support than you may think is warranted. In light of this, you may end up finding that you are both showing more respect to each other than you otherwise might and this may, in turn lend itself to a less acrimonious, more cooperative divorce process going forward.
Over the coming months, what is clear amongst all of this uncertainty is that the way that couples divorce is going to be radically different for the time being but hopefully this will permeate the way that divorcing couples must interact and co-operate with each other too. One consequence may be that separating couples will now be more open to considering constructive, non-Court options in order to move forward – such as our One Couple One Lawyer service, through which we provide the impartial, expert advice that couples need to move on.