As the COVID-19 pandemic spreads, many millions of families around the world are implementing self-isolation, social distancing and quarantine measures. For separated and separating families, this can make a time of immense stress even more difficult. As family lawyers, we are experiencing a high volume of enquiries from parents anxious about how to manage children’s arrangements while limiting the spread of Coronavirus. A multitude of new and unforeseen issues arise when trying to navigate parenting during a pandemic. We field some of those issues here and advise parents on how to keep effectively co-parenting during this public health crisis.
- Stay Safe and Healthy
It goes without saying that practicing social distancing, proper hygiene and self-isolation measures is the best way to minimise the spread of COVID-19. Review the government guidelines and model best practices for your children, encouraging them to form new routines and develop good hygiene habits. Communicate with the other parent to develop routines for the children that are consistent across both households. Australian Government health guidelines can be found here.
- Communicate, Communicate, Communicate
It is more important than ever that parents communicate to ensure children are adequately cared for while transitioning between households.
While schools are closed and classes are being conducted online, parents will need to support their children’s learning and coordinate with each other to ensure children maintain focus and complete school assignments while moving between households.
Parents must keep each other informed of any medical emergencies relating to their children. Where possible, details of treating medical practitioners with whom the children regularly consult should be exchanged between parents now, instead of after the medical emergency occurs. Deliberately withholding medical information or concealing symptoms not only risks the spread of COVID-19, it may be considered a breach of Court Orders.
Government policy with respect to the management of Coronavirus is changing on a daily basis. It is important that parents anticipate changes and discuss contingency measures should the Government implement a lockdown or stricter quarantine measures.
- Continue to Comply with Court Orders
As a general rule, parents are still required to meet their legal obligations under Court Orders despite the recent outbreak of COVID-19. Unless a “reasonable excuse” applies, parents must continue to facilitate spend time, attend changeovers and comply with existing parenting arrangements.
The mere existence of COVID-19 does not give rise to a “reasonable excuse” to contravene parenting arrangements. Parents who breach Court Orders, unilaterally withhold their children or change parenting arrangements on this basis may later find themselves subject to a Contravention Application filed by the other parent.
If the child or the parent is unwell, or either has come into contact with a person who has been diagnosed with COVID-19, then the circumstances may give rise to a “reasonable excuse” and justify the temporary suspension of parenting arrangements. Medical advice and diagnosis should be promptly obtained by the persons affected and, where possible, confirmed in writing.
School Holiday Arrangements
On Sunday 22 March 2020 the Victorian State Government announced that school holidays would be brought forward to begin from Tuesday 24 March 2020. Term 2 commences after the Easter holidays on Tuesday 14 April 2020, which is a pupil-free day. Students will return to school on Wednesday 15 April 2020. It remains to be seen whether education will be provided via flexible and distance learning methods when school resumes in Term 2.
Parents who are bound by Court Orders that are framed in terms of school term and school holiday periods will need to communicate clearly with each other to ensure they understand and continue to comply with Court Orders.
Whether school term or school holiday arrangements apply will depend on the specific content of your Court Orders. If you are unsure about how to interpret or implement your Court Orders in the context of COVID-19, contact one of our experienced family lawyers.
- Consider How to Safely Conduct Changeover
Given the recent closure of schools, restaurants, cafes, galleries, museums, libraries and gymnasiums (to name a few), parents might find that it is not practical to conduct changeover at previously agreed and/or Court mandated changeover locations. While many childcare centres and supervised contact centres continue to operate, parents are advised to contact these facilities and ascertain whether their services will be interrupted or discontinued in the foreseeable future. Where parents have chosen a public changeover location for their own safety and security, it will be important to verify whether the location still serves its purpose. Plan and discuss alternative changeover locations with the other parent where existing changeover locations are no longer available.
- Use Technology to Facilitate Contact
There are a multitude of video conference technologies available that allow children to spend time with parents when face-to-face time is no longer viable. If a parent or child is in self-isolation due to health risks or because they have recently returned from overseas travel, services such as Skype, Zoom, Facetime and Whatsapp offer a platform for families to stay connected.
- Apply for Financial Support
In the few months since it was deemed a pandemic, the COVID-19 virus has had a very significant on the global economy. Many people have lost their jobs or will experience a reduction in their income over the coming months due to quarantine and self-isolation measures. Parents may find that they are unable to meet their child support obligations or contribute to household expenses due to a loss of income. Parents should try to be understanding of each other’s financial stresses during this time and work together to find a solution that prioritises the children’s best interests.
If your family income changes, contact the Department of Health and Human Services to obtain an updated assessment for Family Tax Benefit and Child Support. If you use child care services and are experiencing financial hardship because you cannot obtain paid employment, you may be eligible for the Additional Child Care Subsidy (ACCS). ACCS assists families with families with the cost of approved childcare for up to 13 weeks, providing up to 100 hours of subsidised childcare per fortnight.
The Australian Government has announced several economic stimulus packages to provide income support for individuals who have lost their jobs due to Coronavirus. See here and here for more information.
- Be Aware of New Protocol for Court Proceedings
If you have proceedings on foot in the Family Court of Australia, Federal Circuit Court of Australia or Magistrates’ Court of Victoria, proceedings will continue via telephone link-up or in accordance with social distancing measures. When it becomes possible, videoconferencing will be utilised by the Courts.
Only urgent matters (i.e. matters involving risks of family violence) will be dealt with by face-to-face hearings or interviews, which will be conducted in accordance with social distancing measures. The Court has recently released a face-to-face hearings protocol, which is designed to reduce the risk of court users coming into contact with an infectious person. Listings will be staggered to limit the number of people both in the court room and those waiting outside or in the Court foyer. Courts will be cleaned between each listing, and only 8 people are to be in a court room at any one time. Counsel, solicitors and parties are to sit at least 1.5 to 2 metres apart to adhere with social distancing guidelines. Hearings will be limited to 1.5 hours length.
For non-urgent matters, hearings will now be conducted via telephone. These include both directions hearings and trials. Where there are contested matters at a directions hearing, parties will be required to file written submissions as per the directions of the Registrar.
Parties initiating court proceedings during this period are advised to anticipate long waiting periods for their matter to be listed. Now, more than ever, parents and other involved parties are encouraged to adopt alternative dispute resolution methods to resolve their conflicts. Private mediations can still be run via video conference or in accordance with social distancing guidelines. Family Dispute Resolution services are transitioning to videoconferencing platforms to facilitate mediation sessions.
If you have any concerns about how COVID-19 will affect your family law matter, contact one of our specialist family lawyers on 03 8393 0144.